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Mike Haynes

The British working class in revolt: 1910–1914

(Winter 1984)

From International Socialism 2 : 22, Winter 1984, pp. 87–116.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott.
Marked up by Einde O ‘ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the years between 1910 and the outbreak of the war in August 1914 the British working class went through a period of unparalleled militancy. In industry after industry workers went on strike, many becoming organised for the first time as union membership leapt from 2,477,000 at the end of 1909 to 4,135,000 at the end of 1913. Troops were called in as some disputes grew into local general strikes. Naval gunboats and army machine guns were made ready in case of need and several ‘rioters’ were shot and many more injured in clashes with troops and police. Periodically the strike wave appeared to ebb and ‘society’ could breathe a heavy sigh of relief. It was in this vein that the Times wrote in August 1913 that ‘strikes are no longer of interest except in so far as languid attention may be given to events 6,000 miles away on the Rand’. But then the wave of militancy would flood forward again and only a month after strikes appeared ‘no longer of interest’ the Times had to breathlessly report that ‘Dublin is now practically in a state of civil war between Labour and Capital’. [1] For four long years this pattern was maintained making what contemporaries called ‘the labour unrest’ the longest period of sustained militancy in recent British working class history.

It is this that makes an understanding of the whole period so important. At other times the British working class has seemed a potentially revolutionary force but it has always been possible to explain this away as a result of ‘special causes’. In the years 1800–1848 for example, the forces which contributed to the first ‘making of the English working class’ obviously derived in large part from the transitional stresses of the industrial revolution. Similarly the militancy of the years 1918–1921 (with its ‘nine-day echo’ in the General Strike) is in part explained by the exceptional stress of the war. At all other times the record seems to be one of the gradual ‘forward march’ of a working class firmly integrated into capitalism. Except that is for those four years before the war when the hollowness of all the glib assumptions about the passivity of ordinary people were exposed by a massive strike wave which took place against a background of impeccably ‘normal’ conditions.

But if the ‘labour unrest’ cannot be explained away it can be marginalised and diminished in stature. The very inadequacy of the contemporary term ‘labour unrest’ at once serves to isolate us from a full understanding of these years and this has been reinforced by historical treatment of the militancy.

For early moderate labour historians the revolt was essentially an irrelevant byway on the road to the development of an orderly system of industrial relations. The strikes were explained as an overenthusiastic response to the economic cycle and the increase in union membership by the encouragement given by the administrative provisions of the 1911 National Insurance Act. [2] More recent work has completely marginalised the revolt by stressing the continued vitality of liberalism in these years. With the Labour Party very much its junior partner and able to win perhaps only a dozen seats at most without an electoral alliance preventing liberals standing against labour candidates the industrial militancy is pictured as having no political consequences of significance. [3]

Nor have the left wing historians challenged this picture. Rather their emphasis on the ‘subordinate’ character of the British working class has reinforced it. [4] The only challenge to this has come from historians associated with the forerunner of this Journal, James Hinton, Richard Hyman and Bob Holton and this challenge has not been sustained Recently Hinton has described his previous work as being concerned with ‘ghosts’ which presumably now need to be exorcised. [5] It has therefore been left to two historians in America, at one remove from the stultifying traditions of British labour history, to insist both on the importance of these years and their wider significance. [6]

Sectionalism and the long downturn

Table I sets out the three basic government recorded strike series for Britain from 1895 and the two averages that can be derived from them. I have discussed the nature and limits of these statistics elsewhere as well as how they compare with later periods and internationally. [7] Here our concern will be to use them as an indicator of changing levels of militancy and its contours.

It is immediately evident from Table I that the pre-war revolt was preceded by a long period of downturn in levels of conflict. The numbers of strikes fell, average size fell and strikes became longer as workers had to fight harder for any gains or to defend existing conditions. Our series starts when the 1888–1892 strike wave was over and registers the bitter defensive battles that took place in a number of industries in the 1890s. A home boom allowed some workers such as those in building to push forward offensive demands and so keep up the overall level of strike activity but after the turn of the century the depth of the downturn became much more evident and the number of strikes dropped to an all time low in peacetime years. [8]

Yearly average strike statistics





per strike

Strike days
per strike











































1914 (Jan.–July)






1914 (Aug.–Dec.)






The defensive character of unionism in these years is important because it was at this time that many of the distinctive traits of the labour movement were consolidated. Some left wing historians have seen the period as one of an heroic battle against a general capitalist offensive which, assisted by a number of adverse legal decisions, finally culminated in the Taff Vale judgement. [9] But this is too simplistic. In areas like shipping and the docks where conditions made it relatively easy to use blacklegs and the services of William Collison’s strikebreaking National Free Labour Association such an offensive is clearly evident. [10] But elsewhere what stands out is the acceptability of unions to employers. What was at issue was rather the terms on which unions should exist. Here it is becoming increasingly apparent that many employers who were faced with unions saw them as double-edged. While they might challenge employer prerogatives they could also hold back and discipline workers as well. On this basis employers were prepared to work with unions if the balance could be swung in their favour. [11] It was the need to tilt the balance this way and not the desire to destroy unions that led to major set piece confrontations in, for example, cotton in 1893, the shoe industry in 1895 and, above all, engineering in 1897–1898. At a national level the employers were spectacularly successful but on the ground a degree of workplace power still remained. This was particularly true in engineering where workers were still able to exercise some degree of shop control. If Taff Vale is seen in this light it too appears as a legal decision aimed at strengthening ‘responsible trades unionism’ which would respect contracts with employers.

Moreover a significant minority of union members were prepared to consider accepting this view as well as the conciliation and arbitration machinery which was increasingly sponsored by the Board of Trade after the passing of the 1896 Conciliation Act. For a time Ben Tillett and Tom Mann were both supporters of conciliation and arbitration and over Taff Vale socialist unionists like George Earnes of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) wavered. In part this is to be explained by the way that the union were being drawn into uncharted seas but more significant is the way in which the downturn in militancy in the 1890s had pulled whole sections of the labour movement to the right in the absence of any strongly argued political alternative. The result was that the inward and defensive character of unionism came to be widely shared even on the left.

In this relative political isolation the basis of progress was what Tillett later called ‘funds and sectional combination’. [12] Unions would rely on their sectional strength and accumulated funds which could maintain strikers in localised disputes. Obviously it was only the craft unions which could operate in this way and the ‘new unions’ of the semi and unskilled tended to fall by the wayside unless they too operated on craft lines, becoming ‘cautious, limited, conservative and sectional. [13]

Where these policies broke down was in the big confrontations such as the 1898–98 engineering dispute. But no-one on the left was able to generalise these experiences and workers remained trapped in what W.F. Hay, a militant South Wales miner, called ‘the bow and arrow stage trades unionism’. [14] By the end of 1909, therefore, only some 15% of the workforce was organised. It is important to remember that this shift made the British trades unions the most powerful in the world but that power was dissipated across some 1100 different organisations.

The rise of a union bureaucracy

The other side of the coin of this process of sectional development was the emergence of a trade union bureaucracy in its own right. There had, of course, been individual officials long before but the growth of a class of officials was very uneven. In cotton, for example, they had appeared at a relatively early stage but in engineering the ASE had only a general secretary and a clerk as late as 1866. In the next decades officialdom took root with the rise of central and district officials. The ASE, for example, had a salaried district staff from 1892. Insofar as we can generalise across a very varied experience it does seem that officials were stronger the weaker, more isolated and apathetic the union membership. Thus in engineering strong shop control kept them in check while in building their differentiation was much greater. But everywhere there was the same common tendency towards a developing bureaucracy of officials with their ‘two souls’.

Unfortunately we still lack an adequate account of this. [15] Some officials used their positions spectacularly to their own advantage. The early miners’ leader Alexander MacDonald, for example, made a modest fortune on the side, enjoying to the full the high life of meetings with employers. William Abraham (Mabon) the Welsh miners’ leader earned £700 a year at a time when the best paid hewers would probably be earning no more than £2 a week at most and Abraham was also a director and company shareholder as well as a landlord. In the cotton industry officials could earn £250–£300 a year and it was a relative commonplace for them to later take employment with the cotton masters. [16]

But these are extreme examples and the critique of the trade union bureaucracy does not depend upon the effective bribery, sycophancy or stupidity of officials. Rather this was a secondary consequence of the growth of union officialdom. The majority were, no doubt, ‘overworked and underpaid’ and quite sincere in their beliefs and actions. But this was precisely the problem, as one old engineer told the Webbs, ‘Alas! It is not bribery. Not his morality but his intellect is corrupted’. [17]

This arose for a number of reasons. In the first place the official was removed physically from the discipline of the workplace and the conflicts of the workers. His own conditions were secure both from particular workplace pressures and the general ups and downs of the economy as a whole. Secondly, the development of collective bargaining machinery gave officials a dual role of negotiating better terms for their members and delivering the goods to management for the duration of the agreement in terms of orderly workplace relations. Anything that broke that routine therefore challenged their credibility both in their own eyes and those of the management. The degree of conservatism bred by collective bargaining machinery varied considerably. Although by 1910 it covered only about a quarter of the workforce these nevertheless included most trade unionists. But the focus of this bargaining tended still to be local rather than national – thus limiting to some extent the degree of detachment of officials from their members.

Even so, the tension in the officials position was apparent everywhere and it was reinforced by outside influences. The Webbs well understood how these pressures worked, ‘the officials of the great societies found themselves elected to School boards and even to the House of Commons, pressed by the Government to accept seats on Royal Commissions and respectfully listened to in the lobby’. [18]

It is interesting that the integration of ex-officials into the state was particularly pronounced. Typical was John Burnett who had made his reputation leading the ‘9 hours movement’ in the North-East in 1871–2. He later became secretary of the ASE and from 1886 Labour Correspondent of the Board of Trade. But he was just one of many and as state functions increased so did the tendency to draw in union officials. By 1912, for example, one estimate suggests that ‘nearly 400’ posts created by the liberal government in the factory inspectorate, Home Office, Board of Trade and National Insurance administration had been filled by trade unionists. [19]

These widespread pressures to contain the unions did not, however, go unchallenged. The Board of Trade in the early 1890s, using a very generous definition of ‘official strikes’, found that over a quarter of the strikes they surveyed had not been approved for various reasons. More interestingly still these strikes tended to be larger on average than approved ones. [20] What gave these struggles their importance is that they arose out of informal workplace organisation and an attempt by workers to maintain the ‘frontier of control’. We know most about these struggles in engineering and building but scattered evidence from other industries which has yet to be drawn together shows them clearly to have extended far beyond these two industries. [21] The problem was how could they be built upon?

Workers in revolt

If we turn back now to Table I and focus on the years 1910–1914 we can see the dynamics of the strike wave in action. The number of strikes reached a peak in 1913 and on average in these years strikes were running at twice the level of the previous five years. The number of strikers and strike-days peaked in 1912 because of the national coalmining dispute that year. Over the period as a whole there were 4.5 times more strikers than the previous five years and just under 4 times as many strike-days. The dimensions of individual strikes changed too. Column four shows that the average size of strike grew. Column five reflects indirectly the way in which strikes paid off. The average length of strikes fell, especially in 1911, as workers’ militancy brought them quicker gains and intimidated employers (the increase in 1912 is largely accounted for by the national coal strike).

These broad dimensions are probably common to all strike waves but the previous ones had taken place in the pre-statistical age. Obviously earlier strike waves were absolutely smaller but it is also possible that they were relatively smaller too (except for the very earliest ones which started from a small base). But more significant than mere quantitative comparison is, the way in which the strikes in this era differed qualitatively from what had occurred before.

In the first place these strikes were not contained within the existing union organisations. Rather they were a dual revolt against employers and the established union leaderships and collective bargaining machinery where it existed. It was these aspects that gave them their second characteristic, namely violence and aggression. This was reflected not only in the extensive overt violence against blacklegs, employers and magistrates as well as in the sabotage of machinery but also in the way in which working class self-confidence came to have a belligerent character. In the Black Country in 1913, for example, strikers marched from factory to factory singing with considerable intimidation what became their theme song ‘Hello, hello, here we are again’. [22] The second factor spilt over into a third distinguishing characteristic – the strikes came to represent an implicit challenge to the existing political system. This was only in part a conscious revolt against parliament. Rather it reflected a deeper challenge to the restrictive limits of political activity in Edwardian Britain. At a time when playing street football was a major ‘crime’ of working class youth the willingness of strikers to engage in street politics, to march at a moments notice several miles to bring out another factory served to challenge the closely circumscribed limits of what was acceptable. [23] And for a few this did indeed then develop and link into a more conscious and coherent critique of the nature of the political system.

The detailed history of the major disputes and the related increase in union membership can be found elsewhere. [24] Here we will be content to note the bare outlines in order to look more closely at the characteristics of the whole revolt. The first phase of open militancy ran from September 1910 to August 1911 and centred on the South Wales coal held with a mass refusal to accept the terms negotiated by the union leadership. Eventually the miners were forced back but not before violent clashes had shaken the Rhondda and burned the name Tonypandy into Welsh working class consciousness. Between June and September 1911 the focus switched to transport strikes, first with the conflicts in the ports which stopped Hull and Liverpool and then spilling over into national railway strike. [25] On August 15 two men were shot dead in Liverpool and a few days later two more were shot dead in Llanelli.

In the winter of 1911–1912 the focus switched back to mining with a crippling national strike that involved 93% of all coalworkers closing 87% of all blast furnaces within 5 weeks and seriously hitting rail transport after only 3 weeks. [26] In the spring and early summer attention turned back to transport again with a crucial dock strike in London at the fore. The defeat of this strike was a major setback. Sympathy action in other ports, which had been expected but not planned, did not materialise and the strikers in London were left isolated. For a time the momentum of the strike seemed to waver but then in 1913 it surged back once again. There were renewed strikes on the railways and in the mines but more notable was the spread of strike activity into new areas: the ‘prairie fire’ strikes in the Black Country engineering and metal working industry and new conflicts in building. At the same time in Dublin James Larkin was leading a strike which paralysed and polarised the city. In the end 656 workers were jailed, and 5 killed in what was a mini-civil war which threatened religious divisions as both catholic and protestant workers faced what James Connolly later called ‘an alliance of Dublin Castle with its police, the Orange-Tory magistrates, Nationalist employers and the Catholic hierarchy’. [27]

Larkin’s own position as a strike leader often reflected a sharp divorce between his ‘theory’ and practice but his denunciation of the Labour Party leaders as being as ‘useful as mummies in a museum’ and the TUC as ‘fools who mask as leaders’ was one that many strikers came to share through their own experience. And his basic advice to ‘never trust leaders ... trust yourselves’ was an attitude which typified the militancy of this time. It was an attitude, moreover, which carried the wave of strikes forward to the outbreak of war in 1914. As Table I shows in the first seven months of 1914 strikes were running at a record level with a major building strike in London now capturing most attention. To many worried observers it seemed as if in the autumn things were bound to get hotter still.

Equally significant was the development of union organisation. Membership increased by some 60% and union density rose 23% in 1914. Anti-union tactics which had been maintained successfully for two decades in industries like shipping and the railways were simply blown away. In 1910, for example, only a third of railway workers were organised. By 1914 the figure was three quarters. But organisation spread far more widely taking the first significant inroads among white collar workers and bringing in unskilled workers to a far greater extent than in the 1888–1892 ‘new unionism’ period. The Gasworkers and General Labourers Union increased its membership from 32,000 in 1910 to 135,000 by the end 1913. In the same period the Workers’ Union increased its membership from 5 to 91,000.

But it was not simply organisation. The strikes were also a revolt against traditional union forms – against bureaucratic leadership and sectional organisation. Amalgamation committees led from below sprang up, often opposed by union leaders and with at best usually no more than lukewarm support. Perhaps the greatest success was the partial break with sectionalism on the railways which led to the formation of the National Union of Railwaymen, ‘a triumph of industrial unionism’, and then in 1914 came the formal attempt to link the action of 1.5 million miners, transport workers and railway men in the Triple Alliance. [28]

Of course the wave of militancy did not sweep everything before it. 75% of the workforce remained outside of the unions and sectionalism and bureaucracy continued to exist and worked to subvert the gains of these years. But two decades of union, growth had been compressed into four years and diverted towards the less skilled and the old ways had been thrown heavily on the defensive.

Strikes and consciousness

The revolt of these years cannot be explained without reference to economic, social and organisational pressures. But either by themselves or together this range of explanation is inadequate. Real wages had been falling as prices had risen while at a more general level the increasing size of capitalist organisation and a new intensity of work reinforced the pressures on workers. Then in 1910–1914 unemployment fell sharply creating the basic conditions for militancy. [29] But the militancy went far beyond a simple response to changed conditions to develop a momentum of its own. The rising level of struggle produced a sharp polarisation, on the one hand between workers and employers and the state and on the other between the workers and their official leaderships whether in the unions or the Labour party. The ideology of labourism was not destroyed but it was thrown back on its heels. As one militant mason wrote in 1912 ‘we know something about the men who are going to rebuild our Society (union) if it gets rebuilt, but those men are not officials ... The trade union movement is bled white by officialdom’. [30]

This changing consciousness was far from coherent and it involved more than just ‘a sense of impending clash’. Its tangibility can be felt in a number of ways. At its most class conscious level it can be found in the increasing precision of the militants argument which can be traced in journals like The Industrial Syndicalist, The Syndicalist and most notably in the classic pamphlet of the time – The Miners’ Next Step.

At a broader level it can be found too in the character of the strikers demands. Holton points out that in the South Wales coal dispute the strike committee began by calling on workers to ‘Down Tools’ in support of higher wages and ended by calling on them ‘To put an end to Capitalist Despotism and do battle for the cause of Industrial Freedom’. [31] But Such a progression was by no means unusual. Three years later the strikes in the Black Country began over simple wages issues but quickly brought in other elements that threatened to go beyond this: As One worker said ‘he was looking forward to the time when there would be one union for every man in England. Something was going to happen that would shake the foundation of the Midlands’. Union leaders who were opposed to strike action had to chase after strikers and begin to talk too of ‘class conflict’ in order to retain their credibility with the workers. [32]

Strike committees and militants can, of course, frequently run ahead of the feelings of the mass of strikers, particularly near the end of a dispute. At these times the sloganising becomes more shrill and no doubt this often happened in these years. But what is interesting and different is the extent to which strikers kept up a high level of activity and a high visibility creating a stronger unity than before. Mass picketing was a commonplace, daily strike meetings, frequent demonstrations led by brass bands in a carnival atmosphere and often directed against specific targets like factories still working, street collections and so on. [33] Thus in the South Wales dispute although the men were forced back in August 1911 on terms they could have had the previous autumn militancy nevertheless recovered – a feature which is typical of this period. In these terms the analysis of strike demands and their relationship to changing attitude must be taken seriously in any assessment of what was happening. But the most concrete evidence of changing consciousness can be found in the record of strikes itself.

For contemporaries the most notable aspect of the explosion of consciousness was the sympathetic strike. In fact between 1911 and 1913 the Board of Trade only recognised 37 genuine sympathetic strikes involving only 25,733 workers. [34] The real change in the character of strike profiles has to be measured less formally than this. One important manifestation was the explicit linking of strike demands of different groups which tied together the skilled and the less skilled. This was particularly evident in the transport disputes. But below this we find a new sense of confidence spreading through informal channels. These links particularly benefited those workers in parts of industry which had never been able to strike before. Here the victories of the strong gave new courage to the weak. One indication of this is the way in which strike length changed. As Table I shows the average length of strikes fell but this was not evenly distributed across all strikes. In particular in the very smallest disputes the fall was most dramatic. For example, in 1908–1910 strikes involving less than 25 workers averaged 24.1 days but in 1911–1913 they averaged only 10.4 days. Similarly those involving less than 100 Workers averaged respectively 23.8 and 12.9 days in the two periods. Since workers were winning more gains in these years it is highly unlikely that this is accountable for by small unsuccessful strikes though even a new willingness to go on strike and be defeated would be an important sign. This new confidence also affected the duration of strikes in other ways. Between 1905–1909 39% of strikes lasted less than a week and 71% less than a month. In the strike wave 46% were settled in a week and 80% in a month. At the other end of the scale 4.7% of strikes lasted more than 20 weeks in 1905–1909 but only 2.45% in 1910–1913.

What is being registered here is not only a change in workers attitudes but also a loss of employer confidence. The Board of Trade also kept a record of the results of strikes. This could hardly be objective but it is useful as an index of attitudes. It clearly shows a close relationship between the number of claimed employers victories and the total level of strike activity – the more strikes the fewer victories the employers claimed. Thus in this period we see a sharp fall in the percentage of employer victories and a significant increase in the number of ‘compromises’ that were struck.

The strike profile changed in one other way which is crucial. The new confidence fed into action by women workers on a significant scale. In 1911, for example, in Bermondsey some 15,000 women in the sweated trades came out and they were soon followed by charwomen working for the London County Council. In the Black Country in 1913 too women played a prominent role encouraged by the early successes of men (Lord Askwith’s account has misled many into thinking it was women who set off these strikes). Union organisation was also extended among women by 54% in these years. This was slightly less than amongst men but it was still significant in that it created a credible base for women’s trade unionism for the first time in a number of work places.

These moves did not break entrenched attitudes overnight. A women’s organiser of the Workers’ Union, for example, partly pandering to male prejudices, told strikers in Walsall that ‘unorganised women were a real menace, and it was because the men workers have looked down on them that women have encroached on industries’. But chinks appeared and were beginning to be prised open. In the history of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives, for example, we find the intriguing case of Lizzie Wilson, a Leicester militant. Shining through the bemused contempt of the union’s historian comes the story of a woman who led a struggle to change union attitudes to its women members, in 1910–1911, condemning the leadership as being incapable of dealing ‘with the needs of the members of present day, especially women ...’ In the end she was driven to lead a revolt which led to the creation of an alternative women’s union in the area which apparently lasted until the 1930s. [35] No doubt there were other such cases but until historians take these years more seriously the story behind this and other episodes will remain unknown.

In the four years 1910–1913 somewhere between 25 and 30% of the workforce went on strike according to the official statistics. This was a major transformation but it still left a further 70–75% who did not strike. No doubt amongst these were a hard core of workers who remained indifferent to the challenge of the time. But to judge the revolt like this is misleading. In the first place many strikes were not included in the statistics because they were not considered serious enough. Equally some strikes were strategic and victory in them enabled other workers to make significant gains without themselves going on strike. But more important than either of these points is the way in which the strikes that did take place fed upon and fed into a growing opposition based in the working class community as well as in the factory.

Reactions to strikes very often became community reactions not only because strikers were from these communities but because a related dynamic of community protest linked into industrial struggle. A major tangible grievance, for example, that has been insufficiently discussed was rents. The Black Country strikes were preceded by what landlords and the local press chose to call a ‘Tenants War’ against rent rises and this problem similarly affected other areas. The result was that strikes developed into ‘riots’ such as those which shook Tonypandy in 1910. [36] In Hull and Liverpool too the working class community was involved in attacking police and attempting to rescue arrested strikers, bringing together both catholics and protestants at the same time. [37] The strikers themselves assisted this process by not being afraid to take their demands into the communities, holding house to house collections and evening meetings to gather support. All of this therefore acted to involve those who were not on strike, other workers, women at home and even in 1911 a rash of strikes by schoolchildren. [38] And when the state reacted with violence this only served to intensify solidarity against what was seen as a hostile force whether represented on the ground by troops or the police.

Crisis and the state

But the nature of crisis cannot only be discussed in terms of one side. We have also to look at how the ruling class, through the state, failed to resolve the problems it faced in these years. Before 1914 governments did not have a coherent policy towards ‘industrial relations’. Only the Board of Trade worked consistently, encouraging ‘responsible bargaining’ but aiming at the same time to keep the State at one remove from strikes. The revolt strained these designs to breaking point. The Board of Trade was overwhelmed by the immensity of the strikes and time and again its chief conciliator George Askwith was brought in at the last moment to resolve conflict. For a time he became almost a folk hero dashing through the night from one crisis to another. When the South African government asked to borrow his talents the British government refused because it could not afford for him to be out of the country for so long.

Where Askwith was not sufficient government ministers tried their hand but in the succession of crises such interventions worked to diminishing effect. The way in which control threatened to be lost is powerfully illustrated by the way in which the repressive face of the state was brought to the fore. A Royal Commission in 1908 had recommended against the use of troops in strikes but they were soon widely in use. At first they reinforced the local police and the Metropolitan Police whose task it was to act as the first line national back-up in a crisis. Then in August of 1911 Churchill ordered the troops in to do the strikers work in the transport strikes of that month. [39]

The sensitivity on this issue was shown by the prosecution of Tom Mann and others for issuing a leaflet calling on troops not to shoot on strikers. The crisis was most acute in August 1911, panic seized local government as transport ground to a halt. Troops were dispatched to over 30 towns and opened fire in Liverpool, Llanelli and London. Territorial Army weapons were immobilised or removed in a number of places for fear they would be turned on regular troops by strikers or their sympathisers. Although the worst panic only lasted a few days its seriousness is often not understood. Almost every home based regiment was mobilised and on August 19th army officers were given the right to deploy their men independent of civilian control. [40]

If this military crisis passed the general problems for the state did not. The crucial issue was the ambiguity of ‘collective bargaining’. Under the pressure of the unrest union recognition spread and formal collective bargaining machinery was extended. But worried contemporaries did not see this as it was later seen as ‘the great social invention that has institutionalised industrial conflict’. One of the more intelligent contemporary attempts to assess the strike wave concluded that ‘bargaining cannot abolish strikes and lock-outs any more than diplomacy can abolish war’. [41] The problem was that control of this machinery did not lie securely in the hands of the national leaderships of the unions. Most collective bargaining remained local opening up the possibilities of militants using it to their own advantage. This ‘rank and filism’ was not widely theorised but it was no less real for that. It did, however, inform The Miner’s Next Step which marked a major advance in the attitudes of militants to their unions. This started from the assumption that ‘so long as the system of working for wages endures, collective bargaining remains essential’ but then went on to explore how rank and file militancy could push it in favour of the workers. The problem with the analysis in the pamphlet was that it placed excessive reliance on bringing union leaderships to heel rather than building an alternative leadership in the mines and factories, whilst still working within the existing unions. But even with this important limitation the problem of control was still a very real one. [42]

An important expression of this was the increasing scepticism about conciliation and arbitration machinery. In fact in these years the whole machinery of conciliation and arbitration set up by the state was dangerously exposed. The spread of conciliation was effectively halted as a means of resolving disputes. The extent to which this occurred has been obscured by the fact that in one industry there was a massive increase in conciliation cases making it look as if the total number of cases rose dramatically, but in reality there was hardly any increase at all elsewhere. At the same time in major conflicts the success of conciliation came to depend heavily on the personal qualities of Sir George Askwith – obviously a dangerously narrow base to depend on. Moreover it was not just the workers who came to doubt the value of this machinery. By 1913 employers too were beginning to look for stronger solutions. The difficulties were symbolised when Sir Charles Macara who was a leading member of the Industrial Council – a body designed to bring employers and unions together to restore harmony – suddenly appeared as the intransigent leader of the cotton employers in the lock-out of Lancashire cotton workers. [43]

Again these basic problems were clear to many contemporaries:

it is notorious that the machinery of the present (Conciliation) Act ... has proved altogether inapplicable in most of the more widespread of recent labour troubles ... the parties to such disputes have shown no readiness to agree upon arbitration. The Board of Trade has therefore been compelled in such cases, to fall back on its vaguer powers under the Act ... a power which, it need hardly be said, has failed to be efficacious in some of the gravest emergencies. [44]

There was thus a basic ambiguity in the response to the institutions designed to contain the workers militancy. Very often the militancy pushed through these limits and a minority of militants began to see at least part of the way in which these actions could be taken further. The Triple Alliance well illustrates this. In one sense it was no more than a simple extension of trade unionism designed to increase pressure on the state and hold the militants in check. In these terms it was ‘the cripple alliance’ from the very outset. But it also had another side which the militants fought for and before the war it was not obvious that the officials would succeed in using the Triple Alliance to divert action rather than lead it.

For the state this was precisely the problem. The pragmatic policy that emerged was one of co-opting union leaders. In May 1911 Churchill could on this basis encourage union membership, ‘I consider that every workman is well advised to join a trade union’. But rank and file protest undercut this process and in 1912 Buxton from the Board of Trade had to report to the Cabinet that ‘the leaders have lost influence and consequently self-confidence, and naturally are unwilling to take the same responsibility as they would gladly have taken, and did take, under former conditions’, it took the first world war itself to consolidate this integration of the union leaderships into the state itself. [45]

The failure of the left

The trade union leaders, almost to a man, deplored it, the government viewed it with alarm, the ILP regretted this untoward disregard for the universal panacea of the ballot box, the SDF asked ‘Can anything be more foolish, more harmful, more ... unsocial than a strike’; yet disregarding everything, encouraged only by a small minority of syndicalist leaders, the great strike wave rolled on, threatening to sweep everything away before it. [46]

History abounds with missed opportunities but unfortunately they too often exist only in the mind of the historian. Yet some stand out, and the years 1910–1914 have a serious claim on our attention in these terms. How was it that the left was unable to capitalise on this tide of revolt?

On the eve of the ‘labour unrest’ the left consisted of three main organisations. The oldest and most radical was the Social Democratic Federation. This was a ‘Marxist’ organisation but of a very peculiar kind – Second International Marxism mediated by the foibles of its founder, financier and still dominant personality, H.M. Hyndman. [47] In spite of many difficulties it had survived a number of breakaways and in 1909 had a membership of some 10,000 plus. Alongside it stood the more moderate Independent Labour Party founded in 1893 and now with some 30,000 members. The ILP was in theory a socialist organisation but its leaders had always been prepared to subordinate their socialism to the task of winning seats in parliament. This led them to act as the midwife to the founding of the Labour Representation Committee in 1901. When candidates of the LRC won 29 seats in the 1906 elections the basis for a viable parliamentary Labour Party was created.

But the cost of this electoral success was high. To the extent that it existed socialism was now subject to a double subordination. Unlike on the continent the early socialists were faced with an already strong trades union and co-operative movement. They therefore had the choice of trying to win it over to socialism or compromising their socialism and trying to come to some sort of arrangement with it. In terms of winning a parliamentary victory the second road seemed to offer a short cut and the ILP leaders jumped at it. For their part the trades unions, holding the purse strings, were happy to tolerate the occasional piece of socialist rhetoric in the narrower interests of using parliamentary representation as a pressure to win limited legislative gains – most notably the reversal of the Taff Vale judgement. It was in these terms that Keir Hardie and others constructed their ‘Labour Alliance’. But there was also a second element of subordination to a sometimes secret, sometimes open alliance with Liberalism. [48] Again this was dictated by the belief that it offered a short cut to parliamentary influence, if not power.

There were important differences between the SDF, the ILP and the Labour Party in parliament though a concentration on the leaders and formal ideologies has obscured many instances of cooperation between local branches. [49] But for the purposes of understanding their role in the years 1910–1914, however, it is what they have in common that is important. Here the most significant point is their common focus on parliamentary and local government elections. This meant that not only were they committed ideologically to parliamentary methods but their structures had developed to support this commitment. As a result they were ill-fitted to respond to a strike wave whose very essence was extra-parliamentary and whose militants openly denounced parliament as a charade.

In this they were not, of course, alone. The European left generally was trapped in this framework and although there were important differences between the social democratic parties of Europe the particular weaknesses of the British left encapsulate in this sense the general weaknesses of the European left before 1914. The one major exception to this was to be found in Russia. There the repressive policies of the Tsarist state meant that ‘the social democratic model of a broad mass party representing the whole of the working class was simply impossible. [50] Instead the Bolsheviks were forced to organise in the workplace rather than on the geographical lines of parliamentary constituencies. Politically too the depression imposed a much greater unity and made the party a more homogeneous working class one. At the same time there was no layer of functionaries at the top whose power depended upon either trade union or parliamentary position. Instead leadership depended more on the ability to convince members of the correctness of actions and politics. Thus prior to 1917 the practice of Bolshevism had already emerged even if the theory still awaited its final completion. But much of the theory was there too in outline. Already Lenin and those around him had begun to see these elements as having a merit in themselves and not just to be shrugged off once a parliamentary system was created.

It was this that separated them from other groups on the left in Russia and in Europe more generally. It is obviously foolish to idealise the coherence of a party structure that had to operate in the chaotic conditions of the Tsarist Empire but the significance of the break that the Bolsheviks had made in political organisation and their ability to link political and economic struggled was apparent with hindsight before 1917. In fact between 1912 and 1914 they were able to use a strike wave to gain a commanding position amongst Russia’s small but militant working class and so succeeding where the British left failed.

But the ways in which the SDF, ILP and Labour Party developed were also self-defeating even in their own more limited terms. Not only did the focus on parliament mean that they were subject to all of the pressures that social democratic parties are normally subject to. It also meant that their appeal was effectively emasculated by the parliamentary system itself. The problem here was that the franchise operated in such a way as to exclude some 70% of all adults (it was one of the narrowest in the whole of Europe). On top of this electoral boundaries were drawn in such a way as to minimise the number of working class constituencies while the costs of winning seats in ‘the best club in Europe’ imposed huge financial strains that could not help but affect the way in which the parties were organised. [51]

Access to parliament was seen as being necessary in order to implement state control or ‘collectivism’. Again they suffered here from the general failure of social democratic parties to come to terms with the nature of the capitalist state. But the failure was compounded too by the consequent inability to make contact with the widespread and deeply ingrained tradition of working class hostility to the state. There was thus a basic barrier between what socialists advocated and the instinctive reactions of ordinary people. [52]

This problem was simply explained away in terms of the blindness of the working class to what was being offered them. For their part the parties were equally blind to working class actions such as strikes, a politically ‘disruptive’ activity to which they were indifferent and at worst opposed. With largely middle class memberships they were a part of the labour movement but they did not organise within it. In fact many socialists went further in that they shared a deep and ill-concealed contempt for ordinary people who were too ‘stupid’ to recognise the abstract attraction of their socialism – an attitude typified in Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Organisationally too they had much in common in that they were all bureaucratically centralised with only limited internal democracy. In practice this meant that decisions were hard to enforce, with the result that the branches were constantly pulled in different directions by their own memberships. [53]

But this was obscured as were the oligarchic cliques running them by another shared characteristic – namely their moralistic concern with socialism as a form of abstract propaganda. This at one and the same time pulled them together as organisations and isolated them from the cold realities of the world. Behind it socialism could become ‘a milch-cow to those who made careers through it, a ladder to bureaucratic jobs outside, or a comforting ideology for professional intellectuals’. [54]

There is a tendency to imply that there was a certain inevitability about the way in which these characteristics developed. But what is interesting is the recurrent history of revolt against these traditions. The early days of the SDF, for example, were marked by William Morris’s objections to the parliamentarism of Hyndman. In the ILP in the early 1890s Hardie’s conception of the ‘Labour Alliance’ had to overcome the arguments of Tom Mann and others that any serious socialist party should be equally opposed to Liberalism and Toryism and see work in the trade unions as one of its main tasks. Again in the late 1900s various opposition currents emerged in both of these organisations. Sometimes the desire was only to make them more effective in their own terms but again some began to question the terms on which they had been built. [55]

None of these critiques were fully developed with the result that there tended to be an oscillation between temporary sharp internal criticism before differences were sunk in the wider interests of the party or movement and an attempt to maintain purity through extreme sectarianism such as that found in the Socialist Labour Party – a breakaway from the SDF. As a result the left entered the strike wave without any organisation capable of capitalising on it. Instead it was out of the failure to come to terms with the strikes that the elements of the questioning of the existing forms began to come together prefiguring parts of the model which existed, as yet unknown, in Russia though without ever completing it before 1914.

The state of the political left 1909–1914
(Branches and membership estimates)



SDF-BSP (1912—)
















343–370 (40,000?)




na (15,313)




na (13,755)

15 (300)

The Labour party, the ILP, and the BSP

The scale and unofficial character of the revolt struck at the very heart of the carefully constructed alliances on which the Labour Party was based. MPs found themselves faced with the choice of defending the officials whose unions paid them or supporting the actions of the workers whose support they rhetorically invoked. To his credit Keir Hardie chose the later path though his actions were often less radical than his words, ‘syndicalism’, he declared, ‘is the direct outcome of the apathy and indifference of this House towards working class questions, and I rejoice at the growth of syndicalism’. [57] But the rest of the party many of whom were current or former union leaders remained Silent. And when the silence was broken it was only to lecture strikers. In 1911 Arthur Henderson and three other labour MPs proposed a bill to make strikes illegal without 30 days notice. But at least they allowed for strikes. Phillip Snowden, known for his radicalism as the ‘English Robespierre’, came out against strikes at all in the labour press and in a more qualified way in his book Socialism or Syndicalism. [58] The value of outbursts like these as a weapon with which to attack strikers was not lost on the press. Snowden’s condemnation of syndicalism was published just as the 1913 strike wave was gathering momentum in the Midlands. His argument was immediately taken up by the local press:

Mr Snowden’s writings have frequently given us the impression that he has become a great deal more impressed since he entered Parliament by the wisdom of things as they are ... We are quite at one with Mr Snowden in his condemnation of Syndicalism and the General Strike. [59]

The fact that the Labour Party was acting as a bulwark of the existing order was not just a figment of the militants’ imagination. Lloyd George saw its role in exactly these terms. ‘Socialism’, he said, meaning the Labour Party, would destroy ‘Syndicalism’ – ‘the best policeman for the Syndicalist is the Socialist’:

there is this guarantee for society, that one microbe can be trusted to kill another, and the microbe of Socialism, which may be a very beneficient one, does at any rate keep guard upon the other, which is a very dangerous and perilous one. I have, therefore, no real fear of the Syndicalist. [60]

These positions accentuated the emerging crisis in the ILP and the other groups that made up the grass roots of the Labour Party. One indication of this is the failure of socialist and co-operative society affiliation to the Labour party to grow. Between 1905–1910 membership in this category rose by 85% but in the years 1910–1914 it rose by only 7%. Behind these figures lies the particular problem of the ILP. During these years, says its historian, the Party ‘appeared irrelevant and tired’. Its ideological standing diminished, the circulation of the Labour Leader declined and finally a significant minority of rank and file members broke away. [61]

One expression of this paralysis was the way in which many intellectuals moved to a fundamental questioning of the nature of parliamentary socialism. While the columns of the Daily Herald from 1912 gave such people a wider platform which was used for bitter political and personal attacks on the labour leadership they tended in their own politics to support a proliferating number of marginal and utopian groups. GDH Cole was typical in trying to subvert the Fabian Society ‘to permeate the permeators’ in order to create an ‘intelligence department’ for the labour movement and a purged Labour party led by, amongst others, Phillip Snowden! [62]

Rank and file opposition, by contrast, did have a practical edge to it and it came to a head in 1911. Under the impact of their own quickening radicalisation and the pressure of socialists like Victor Grayson, a dissident group led particularly by Leonard Hall (who had been an ILP member since its foundation) finally despaired of changing the ILP. A measure of the significance of their loss can be seen in the consequent decline in ILP branches in Table II. It is evident too in the decline in affiliation fees which slumped by 25% between 1910–1912 and a further 11% between 1912–1914. [63]

The dissident ILPers left to join the British Socialist Party (BSP) which was an attempt to bring together all those groups to the left of the ILP. In the autumn of 1911 a Socialist Unity Conference was held in Salford with over 200 delegates including 41 from ILP branches and 86 from SDF branches and then in May 1912 the founding conference of the BSP was held. The new party thus drew together the old SDF with an amalgam of local socialist groups and the former ILP members. The latter represented a developing critique which centred on support for industrial action against parliamentary action. The Manifesto of the Birmingham section of the BSP spoke of ‘the machine gun action of all vast armies of Labour organised as a national, union of all workers in all industries’. [64] At the unity conference it was claimed that 35,000 socialists were represented and the founding conference of the BSP claimed to represent 40,000 members. These figures have been widely quoted but they were probably exaggerated. However, even if only half that number were genuinely represented the BSP still presented a potentially formidable, force.

Unfortunately within a year the promise had disappeared. The problem lay not so much with Hall and the ex-ILP contingent as the old SDF which still made up the core of the BSP. Under the pressure of the unrest the old leaders around Hyndman had begun to move to the left in their rhetoric but all of the ambiguities towards strikes, parliament and even nationalism remained. It did not take long for them to come out. When Hall tried to get full support for the industrial revolt he could only muster a third of conference support in 1912. After this the old guard came out in the open rehearsing increasingly right-wing arguments on nationalism and above all opposing strikes:

All workers, whether they like it or not, are consumers as well as producers, citizens as well as wage earners ... Any policy failing to act upon this must be a disruptive agency, at a time when working class consolidation is crucial. [65]

For the militants this was the last straw and they began to drift away. With them went the hope that it was possible to turn the existing political organisations into fighting alternatives. The logic was now for the BSP to liquidate itself given that as a parliamentary organisation the Labour party was obviously more effective and this is just what happened. In 1914 the BSP applied to affiliate to the Labour party and it was finally accepted in 1916.


Outside of the ILP and the BSP the most important political expression of the workers militancy was the syndicalist movement. The leading force behind syndicalism was Tom Mann helped by a small number of able publicists and militant rank and file workers like Noah Ablett a South Wales militant and part author of The Miners’ Next Step. Mann had begun to publish The Industrial Syndicalist after he returned from Australia in 1910. This was a monthly for direct action and 11 in all were published. The first issues fell on fertile ground and in December 1910 the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL) was set up. Syndicalist influence continued to grow though 1911 and 1912 encouraging both the militancy and the splits in the ILP that we have discussed. The Industrial Syndicalist ceased publication at the height of the strikes in 1911 and Mann replaced it with the Liverpool based Transport Worker. Then in December 1911 the first edition of The Miners’ Next Step was published only to be sold out within three months.

In 1912 the ground seemed even more promising. In January publication of The Syndicalist began and then in the spring a massive boost came first, from the arrest of Mann and Bowman over their Don’t Shoot leaflet issued to troops, then the national coal strike and finally the publication of the Daily Herald which had begun as a printers strike sheet. During the summer of 1912, The Syndicalist had a circulation of 20,000. The culmination came in the Autumn when the ISEL conference drew together delegates from unions, trade councils and rank and file amalgamation committees representing a claimed 100,000 workers. Their purpose was to unify syndicalism and create a more coherent and effective organisation. ‘The 1912–13 reorganisation of the ISEL represented the highpoint of formal organisational cohesion within the syndicalist movement before the war’. [66]

Yet within months the ISEL too had splintered and syndicalism as a movement fragmented. The split came on the issue of reorganising existing unions or creating new dual unions. Except in the short-run the latter position has always proved disastrous in Europe but its apparent success in America gave it sufficient credibility for some to use it to divide the impressive unity of 1912. Syndicalism though did not simply die away. Locally it remained important and one of the largest fragments – the Industrial Democracy League led by Mann with its Journal Solidarity had wider influence. But the promise had clearly failed to materialise.

The normal explanation for this is somewhat trite. Syndicalism, it is argued, ignored politics and paid the price for it. Syndicalists did declare themselves to be ‘anti-political’ and some did mean it literally but for most ‘anti-political’ meant anti-parliamentary and anti-Labour party. This ambiguity was a weakness but not as damning as it is often made out. The syndicalists did have an impressive theoretical critique which recognised that parliament was a fa├žade that hid the real bases of power and saw state control not as the liberation of the working class but as the development of (their term) state capitalism. Against this they held out for the value of direct action by the working class through strikes not only nationally or internationally. These elements were not all held to the same extent by everyone, nor were they always expressed unambiguously and coherently but they did mark a major step forward. The problem was not so much then the lack of a theory as the lack of an organisation to use it.

J.T. Murphy, a militant who first entered politics as a member of a syndicalist inspired union amalgamation committee later described the tasks of revolutionaries as to be ‘in the unions, of the unions, but not determined by their limitations’. Syndicalism met the first two criteria but as Murphy recognised, in going beyond it, syndicalism broke itself on the last. [67] Simply working within the unions was not sufficient. This was apparent in a number of ways. When major crises broke the syndicalists lacked an organisation capable of supporting their militants and enabling them to maximise the potential in strikes. In the national coal strike in South Wales, for example, the militants seem to have held themselves back. In the 1912 dock strike in London Tom Mann recognised the need to argue and win other ports support for the London dockers but others did not and in any case there was no political organisation available to do this. [68] Then during periods when militancy turned down the syndicalists were deprived of a focus of action which could sustain both themselves and their periphery. Equally when it came to the links with the community the trade union focus too served to limit their impact. The syndicalists great achievement was to recognise clearly where the real power of capitalism lay and where the potential power of the working class was but they could not themselves link the industrial and the political. The fragmentation of syndicalism only perpetuated these problems as it turned into sectarianism in 1913, and in 1914 it intensified them.

Outside of these groups the only other group worthy of note was the Socialist Labour Party (SLP). This had been formed in 1903 as a breakaway from the SDF and it had come under the influence of American industrial unionist Daniel De Leon. As is clear from Table II it was a minuscule group though it had some industrial in strength on the Clyde and its militants had played a key role in the Ruskin College revolt of 1909 when the working class Students had revolted against the teaching offered. What makes the SLP important is that alone amongst the political groups it had a serious industrial orientation and in one case – at the Singer factory on the Clyde in 1911 it briefly held perhaps 1500 out of 10,000 workers in its trade union organisation.

For this it certainly deserves respect but Ray Challinor has gone further and argued that in the SLP we can find ‘the origins of British Bolshevism’. Certainly the SLP shared some theoretical elements in common with Bolshevism before 1914 but it was not alone in this and it is difficult to see why it should be singled out. Equally it had many of the worst sectarian traits and its dual unionism did no service to itself or to the militancy in general. The super-discipline imposed by rigid control from the top, the knowledge of marxism enforced by an exam system, the opposition to any unofficial or branch leadership positions in unions and other related features made it the very opposite of Bolshevism which was based upon the development of a layer of self-reliant militants. [69]

The aftermath

But the problem with looking around at groups and individuals to find ‘origins’ at this time is that it claims both too much and too little. It claims too much in the sense that no-one had found the model of a revolutionary political party that could steer between the twin dangers of sectarianism and simple liquidation into the parliamentary activities of the ILP and the Labour party. It claims too little in the sense that it obscures what Bob Holton has called ‘an indigenous dynamic’ that was leading a whole series of diverse rank elements towards the need for a political party along the lines of that created by the Bolsheviks in Russia. That it needed the impact of the first world war and the Russian Revolution to act as a catalyst to cause these elements to fuse together should not prevent us from recognising the importance of the militancy of 1910–1914 in creating them.

This needs to be insisted upon partly because some historians, most notably Walter Kendall, argue that the Communist Party when it was formed ‘was an almost wholly artificial creation which wrenched the whole course of the (labour) movement’s left wing out of one direction and set it off on another’. [70] But at a much wider level than this it also needs to be insisted upon against those on the left who argue both that the British working class is ‘non revolutionary’ and that the existing political forms have contained and can contain – perhaps with modification – working class revolt. What the experience of 1910–1914 shows is that at a time when the Labour Party and the trade unions were far more flexible than they are today militants still found through bitter experience that they were inadequate and that the fight for socialism requires much more than these. The tragedy was that the lesson had not been learnt before and so little was made of the militancy. And, of course, to the extent that it is still denied each generation is doomed to its cost to learn it too by even more bitter experience.

Did the militancy then find no political expression? Some historians who have concentrated on parliamentary by-elections as an index suggests not. But this ignores two factors. Firstly, the militancy acted to increase the alienation of many from participation in parliamentary politics and elections altogether. It has been argued that this effect can be seen in some union elections but the point has wider validity. This is not just a question of apathy. What often happened was that ‘indifference’ to the political system changed under the impact of militancy to a conscious rationalisation that participation produced nothing. How widespread this was is difficult to say but further investigation may show it to have been significant. [71]

The second factor is that parliamentary by-elections are subject to too many variables in terms of constituency differences and are too few in number to make any reliable judgements possible about underlying changes in working class consciousness. There does however exist an index which while not removing these problems does minimise them somewhat. This is the evidence of local government elections. What this shows was a clear swing to the left. This, while being an indicator of changing consciousness, was far from a vote of confidence in the existing parties or system. The evidence for this lies in Table III.

Local government performance of Labour candidates


(1) Average no.

(2) % total vote
to Labour

(3) % opposed









Column 1 shows the organisational loss of momentum of the Labour party and the ILP. The average number of candidates fell and is only as high as it is during the period because of the large number standing in 1913. Column 2 shows that there was indeed a significant 5% swing to the left and column 3 shows how this was rewarded in terms of elected candidates. Typically the article from which this data is taken makes no mention of the impact of the ‘labour unrest’ in explaining electoral performance. But the militancy cannot be written out of history so easily. Our suggestions is that it caused a swing to the left which was caught in these statistics and which took place in spite of rather than because of the antics of the parliamentary left. Certainly their leaderships drew no comfort from these results. In this sense too it would be unwise to use the problems of the Labour party as support for the proposition that Liberalism was healthy. For a minority, perhaps a significant one, the question mark hanging over the relevance of both to ordinary people was bigger than ever in 1914.

Then in August 1914 it was all over. Weeks after a relatively minor assassination Europe was at war. ‘The great General Strike of 1914’ wrote George Dangerfield, had been ‘forestalled by some bullets at Sarajevo’. [73] But had it? Even if we ignore this overblown scenario does not the collapse of the militancy seen in Table I and the mass voluntary enlistment of workers show that it was all an illusion?

But things are not so simple. In the first place it is debatable whether the working class had been moved on a significant scale by imperialist war before and, in the second place, ‘enthusiasm’ for the war was general across Europe. [74] What we need to understand therefore are the specifics of each situation and their relation to what went before.

If we pursue this a number of obvious points stand out. The war was with a major European enemy and not one on the outposts of the Empire and to this extent it was qualitatively different, the left had certainly compromised itself by its jingoism and nationalism in the past and the government had played on this using international tension as an appeal to moderate conflict on the railways in 1907 and again in 1912. Perhaps against this background what is remarkable is the slowness with which working class support for the war was generated. This might sound perverse in view of the huge voluntary enlistment that emerged within weeks but to repeat a shopworn phrase ‘a week is a long time in politics’ and the way that support snowballed is important.

One indication of this can be found in the only study of working class recruitment between July and September 1914. This shows that in spite of the gathering war clouds from July 25 there was no discernible impact on recruitment before war broke out. When war was declared the initial demands were for skilled men who were offered much higher rates of pay than were available in civilian life and for middle class groups like motorcyclists who were offered considerable ‘bounties’ if they enlisted with their machines. So far as recruitment into the ranks is concerned the early pattern of recruitment involved an intensification of the pre-war pattern – largely unskilled workers though with a tendency for average age to rise. And this recruitment took some days to snowball. [75]

It did so against a background of panic and disarray on the left. Few socialists came out openly against the war, some abstained but a majority quickly capitulated and openly supported the war effort. This did have a real and legitimising influence for it gave the propaganda claims about the war a credibility. It also gave credibility to attempts to halt the militancy in its tracks. The strikes did not simply stop by a vote of acclamation by workers fired with a lust for war. What happened was that union executives used the excuse of war and the confusion it caused to resolve their own crises of leadership by imposing executive decisions on the strikers. [76]

It by no means follows from this that a stronger anti-war stand would have pulled a majority of workers away from their initial enthusiasm for war. This is plainly untrue. But it is legitimate to suggest that a stronger anti-war base was possible. And small though it was such a base did exist amongst workers and this is not to be accounted for simply by the dominance of liberal pacifism. Nor was it so negligible in comparative terms. [77]

This may not seem much to hold onto in the face of the catastrophe of a world war. But the limited socialist opposition to war in August 1914 was to grow and feed into the next period of revolt when workers protest in Britain was to go beyond the limits of 1910–1914 and for a time be part of a general European revolutionary wave.


1. Quoted in Lord Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes, 1920, pp. 259–260. Askwith was the state’s chief industrial conciliator.

2. E. Phelps Brown, The Growth of British Industrial Relations, 1959; H. Pelling, The labour unrest, 1911–1914, in H. Pelling, Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain, 1968. The ideological background to these interpretations is briefly discussed in J. White, 1910–1914 reconsidered, in J. Cronin & J. Schneer (eds.), Social Protest and Political Order in Modern Britain, 1982.

3. There is now a large literature expressing this view, see in particular T. Wilson, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914–1935, 1968; P. Clark, Lancashire and the New Liberalism, 1971; R. Douglas, Labour in decline. 1910–14, in K. Brown (ed.), Essays in Anti-Labour History, 1974.

4. For a survey which supports this view see K. Nield, A symptomatic dispute? Notes on the relation between marxian theory and historical practice in Britain, Social Research, vol. 47 no. 3, autumn 1980.

5. R. Hyman, The Workers’ Union, 1971; Hinton, The First Shop Stewards Movement, 1973; B. Holton, British Syndicalism 1900–1914, 1976. For Hinton’s comments on ghosts see his Labour and Socialism: A History of the British Labour Movement, 1983, p. ix.

6. J. Cronin, Industrial Conflict in Modern Britain, 1979; R. Price, Masters, Unions and Men: Work Control in Building and the Rise of Labour 1830–1914, 1980. It is far from my intention to endorse everything that Cronin and Price have argued since there are important problems in both that I have explored elsewhere, but they have the considerable merit of looking in the right direction.

7. M. Haynes, Strikes, in J. Benson (ed.), Neglected Lives: the Working Class in England 1875–1914, (forthcoming 1984).

8. In the years 1893–1914 building strikes were 20% of all recorded strikes but only 6% in the years 1902–1910.

9. Notably J. Saville, Trade unions and free labour: the background to the Taff Vale decision, in A. Briggs & J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History, 1967.

10. See P. Bagwell, Transport, in C.J. Wrigley (ed.), A History of British Industrial relations 1875–1914, 1982.

11. A good indication of this is that consistently over two thirds of strikes were settled by some form of negotiation. In the 1890s around 13% were settled by replacing workers and this fell to around 10% in the 1900s. Throughout, strikes settled in this way were roughly a quarter of the size of the ‘average strike’ suggesting that this was a resort of small rather than big employers.

12. The Industrial Syndicalist, vol. 1 no. 6, December 1910, p. 10.

13. E.J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men, 1964, ch. 10.

14. The Industrial Syndicalist, vol. 1 no. 5, November 1910, p. 22.

15. An awareness of the importance of bureaucracy is central to K. Burgess, The Origins of British Industrial Relations, 1975, but there are important weaknesses in his account which are explored in R. Hyman, The birth of the trade union bureaucracy, International Socialism (first series), no. 90, July–August 1976, pp. 23–4.

16. On MacDonald, see R. Challinor,Alexander MacDonald and the Miners, Our History, pamphlet no. 48, winter 1967–8; on Abraham and the cotton officials see Burgess, op. cit., pp. 16, 249–50.

17. E. Hunt, British Labour History 1815–1914, 1981, p. 390.

18. S. & B. Webb, The History of Trade Unionism, 1920, p. 325.

19. Burnett’s career is discussed in detail in J. Bellamy & J. Saville (eds.), Dictionary of Labour Biography, 1974, volume 2; the estimate of the numbers drawn in after 1906 is Halevy’s quoted in D. Rubenstein, Trade unions, politicians and public opinion 1906–1914, in C. Cook & B. Pimlott (eds.), Trade Unions in British Politics, 1982.

20. Annual Report of Strikes and Lockouts for 1894, (BPP 1895 xcii) and for 1895 (BPP 1896 lxxx).

21. Hinton, First Shop Stewards ..., op. cit., on engineering; Price op. cit., on building and more generally, V. Gore, Rank and file dissent, in C.J. Wrigley (ed.), op. cit.

22. Wolverhampton Express and Star, 30 June 1913.

23. In 1911 132 out of 605 children in court for non-indictable offences were there for playing street football. M. Blanch, Nationalism and the Working Class in Birmingham, Unpublished Ph.D. Birmingham, 1975, p. 290.

24. Holton’s book on British Syndicalism is the best account and Cronin, op. cit., sets these strikes in their wider context.

25. On Hull see K. Brooker, The Hull Strikes of 1911, 1979; on Liverpool see H. Hilkin, The Liverpool general transport Strike of 1911, Trans. Historical Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, vol. 113, 1961.

26. Annual Report of Strikes and Lockouts for 1912, (BPP 1914 xlviii).

27. J. Connolly, Labour in Irish History, 1983.

28. The characterisation of the NUR is that of K.G.L.C. Knowles, Strikes – A Study in Industrial Conflict, 1952, p. 177.

29. The impact of real wages was stressed at the time by G.D.H. Cole, The World of Labour, 1913 and later Phelps Brown, op. cit.; for new work pressures see Holton, op. cit. and P. Stearns, Lives of Labour, 1975.

30. Holton, op. cit., pp. 20, 76–7, Price, op. cit., p. 256.

31. Holton, op. cit., p. 84.

32. Wolverhampton Express and Star, May-June 1913, passim.

33. These comments are based in particular on the Black Country strikes of 1913 which can be followed in the local press but the secondary studies of strikes in other areas indicate similarly high levels of activity.

34. The statistics in this section are drawn from various issues of the Annual Report on Strikes and Lockouts issued by the Board of trade.

35. A. Fox. A History of the National Union of Boot and Shoe Operatives 1874–1957, 1958, pp. 309–313.

36. D. Smith, Tonypandy 1910: Definitions of Community, Past and Present, no. 87, 1980.

37. Holton, op. cit.; Brooker, op. cit.

38. D. Marson, Children’s Strikes in 1911, 1973.

39. G. Marshall, The armed forces and industrial disputes in the UK, Armed Forces and Society, vol. 5 no. 2, Feb. 1979, pp. 271–3. Askwith secretly reported to the Home Office from Hull in July 1911 that ‘they have hidden the ammunition and drawn the bolts of the rifles in the (territorial) barracks so as to prevent a raid in the city itself’. Brooker, op. cit., p. 20; weapons were also withdrawn in the 1912 coal strike, Holton, op. cit., p. 114.

40. Marshall, op. cit., p. 271.

41. Unionist Social Reform Committee (J.W. Hills, W.J. Ashley & M. Woods), Industrial Unrest: a practical solution, 1914, p. 8.

42. The Miners’ Next Step, 1912 (rep. 1973), p. 18.

43. I hope to explore this in more detail elsewhere. The total number of conciliation cases rose because of the hyperactivity of the tinplate board. Elsewhere it was a different story.

44. Unionist Social Reform Committee, op. cit., p. 16.

45. Rubinstein, op. cit., pp. 59–60; K. Middlemas, Politics in Industrial: the Experience of the British System since 1911, 1979.

46. W. Kendal, The Revolutionary Movement in Britain 1900–1921, 1969, p. 26.

47. C. Tsuzuki, H.M. Hyndman and British Socialism, 1961.

48. The Labour Party did not have individual membership at this time. Membership came through its affiliated organisations – trade unions, co-ops and ILP. James Hinton analyses this double subordination in his Labour and Socialism ..., op. cit. Its practical consequences in terms of the first generation of MPs are well analysed in D. Martin, The instruments of the people? the parliamentary Labour Party in 1906, in D.E. Martin & D. Rubinstein, Ideology and the Labour Movement, 1979.

49. See for example. Tsuzuki, op. cit.

50. J. Molyneux, Marxism and the Party, 1978, pp. 38, 65–69.

51. There is a large literature on these constraints which is well summarised in W.L. Arnstein, Edwardian politics: turbulent spring or indian summer?, in A. O’Day (ed.), The Edwardian Age, 1979. Briefly – all women were excluded from the vote, approximately 12% of males failed to gain the vote under the various franchises in operation and a further 30% who did get a vote lost it because they failed to meet the registration requirement of living in the same house for 12 months. The wealthy, also had plural voting rights. Election costs were huge – the ILP had to raise £20,000 for the few candidates it stood in 1894: so that money had to be got from trade unions or wealthy ‘philanthropists’ like Andrew Carnegie the American steel industrialist or George Cadbury. Constituency boundaries were also drawn so as to minimise the number of working class constituencies.

52. This was first brought out by Pelling, op. cit., who argued that ‘there was nothing “bourgeois” about this popular distrust of state intervention. On the contrary, it can be readily associated with the view of the state taken by Marxists, that it was an organisation run by and for the benefit of the wealthy’, p. 5. Reynolds, op. cit., gives a graphic description of this attitude with a keen understanding of its rationale.

53. D. Morris, Democracy, oligarchy and the ILP. 1906–1914 (mimeo), 1982.

54. S. Yeo. A new life: the religion of socialism in Britain. 1883–1896, History Workshop, no. 4. Autumn 1977, p. 16. This important article tries to push the ‘golden age’ of socialism back to the 1880s and early 1890s when parties were embryonic. But while indicating some of the ways in which the ‘fall’ came Yeo fails to explore how the ideological forms of socialism which he (with some justice) celebrates also both allowed the ‘fall’ to occur and acted as a theoretical cover for it.

55. See Holton, op. cit., part 1 and R. Groves, The Strange Case of Victor Grayson, 1975.

56. Compiled from Kendall, op. cit.; R. Dowse, Left in the Centre, 1966; R. Challinor, The Origins of British Bolshevism, 1977.

57. Quoted in I. McLean, Keir Hardie, 1975.

58. Labour Leader, 2–23 October 1913; Snowden, Socialism or Syndicalism, 1913, pp. 39, 222–3, 236–7.

59. P. Snowden, op. cit.; Wolverhampton Express and Star, 22 May 1913.

60. Henderson and Snowden are warmly quoted at length by Askwith in his account, op. cit., pp. 145–147, 198–9, 260; Hansard, 19 March 1912, vol. xxv, p. 1774 for Lloyd George’s speech.

61. Membership figures of the Labour Party from H. Tracey (ed.), The British Labour Party, 1948, volume I, pp. 3–4; R. Dowse, op. cit., p. 19.

62. Cole. op. cit., p. 258. J. Winter, Socialism and the Challenge of War, 1974, pp. 102, 113.

63. R. Dowse, op. cit., p. 19. See also D. Morris. The origins of the British Socialist Party, Northwest Labour History Society Bulletin, no. 8, 1982–3.

64. C. Tsuzuki, op. cit., p. 174. Kendall, Morris and Tsuzuki all give different figures for the number of delegates. Here we follow the latter.

65. Ibid, p. 187. See also Morris, op. cit., and Kendall, op. cit. Kendall stresses the way in which the old SDF leadership also attempted to inculcate its nationalist and chauvinist attitudes in the BSP.

66. Holton, op. cit., pp. 140–1.

67. J. Murphy, The Workers’ Committee, 1917 (rep. 1972); J. Murphy, Preparing for Power, 1972.

68. Holton, op. cit., p. 119.

69. Challinor, op. cit., especially chaps. 4–5. The SLP is also discussed though less reliably in chapter 4 of Kendall, op. cit.

70. Kendall. op. cit., p. xii.

71. Price, op. cit., pp. 253–4.

72. M.G. Sheppard & J.L. Halstead, Labour’s municipal election performance in provincial England and Wales, 1901–1913, Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin, no. 39, Autumn 1979. Labour here refers all left wing candidates but the overwhelming majority were ILP–Labour Party.

73. G. Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1966, p. 351.

74. On the lack of imperialist sentiment in the Boer War see Pelling, op. cit. and R. Price, An Imperialist War and the British Working Class 1899–1902, 1972; for a contrasting view see Blanch, op. cit.

75. Blanch, op. cit., ch. 16.

76. Price, op. cit., p. 266 shows how this happened in building.

77. See F. Carsten, War Against War, 1982.

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