Mill workers Mill workers in Manchester in 1862.

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s appeal to ‘progressive patriotism’ is misguided but the working class internationalism of the 1860s is inspiring, argues Alex Snowdon

In her opening pitch for the Labour leadership campaign – published in the Guardian – Rebecca Long Bailey referred to ‘progressive patriotism’. This has attracted attention and generated debate, with many people criticising (rightly in my opinion) her well-worn formulation as a misplaced attempt at triangulation.

But what about the specific example of ‘progressive patriotism’ cited by Long-Bailey? She referred approvingly to Lancashire workers in 1862 delivering practical solidarity to the struggle of the Northern states to win the American Civil War and end slavery. As she wrote,

‘Lancashire’s mill workers supported Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery blockade of cotton from the American south’

This is an excellent instance of internationalist working class solidarity rather than any form of patriotism. It is worth investigating what was happening in 1860s and the wider tradition of working class internationalism represented by this example.

The Victorian working class

The long economic boom of the 1850s and 1860s saw rapid industrialisation and growing prosperity for Britain, though the economic gains were very unevenly distributed. Industry developed and, with it, the working class grew in size and became increasingly concentrated in cities and large towns, including the northern mill towns built around work in the massive cotton and textiles industries. There was, throughout these years, a high degree of political stability and relative industrial peace.

The extent to which the working class was quiet and passive has often, however, been greatly exaggerated. An over-simplified account of Victorian Britain has very little class struggle or popular revolt taking place between the serious defeat for Chartism in 1848 and the revival of struggle with the New Unionism of the late 1880s. Perry Anderson, for example, wrote that beginning at the end of the 1840s:

‘For 30 years of prolonged catatonic withdrawal, the most insurgent working class in Europe became the most numbed and docile’

It is true that 1848 marked the end of a period of mass Chartist struggle. This downturn for the working class movement was influenced, too, by the defeats for the revolutionary movements in continental Europe. It was further underpinned by the economic boom and the way this allowed the ruling class to partially co-opt and neuter the more skilled elements of the working class, partly through increased wages but also by gradually extending the franchise, in particular through the 1867 Reform Act.

However, Anderson overstates the case considerably. By the early 1860s things were changing and throughout the decade there would be resistance in various forms. On three major fronts – strike activity, internationalism and agitation for the vote – there was a definite uptick in activity.

The period saw a number of major strikes: indeed it was the building workers’ strikes – fighting for a 9-hour working day – in the late 1850s that prompted the launch of the London Trades Council in 1860, which proved to be a vital player in the movement in the years ahead. New trade union bodies were established in other areas too. There was a big revival in suffrage activity, which influenced the extension of the vote to elements of the working class in 1867. Massive demonstrations in London in 1866 and 1867, often in defiance of police bans or repression, had a decisive part in this.

The international cause of labour  

A series of international causes galvanised popular support among working class people during these years. Italy’s Risorgimento – the revolutionary struggle for a unified and independent Italy – drew significant support from 1860 onwards. It was viewed as a progressive struggle for liberation and its greatest leader, Garibaldi, was greeted as a hero by working class crowds when he visited Britain in 1864.

The London Working Men’s Garibaldi Committee drew a large crowd and there was a militant demonstration when the authorities tried to remove Garibaldi from the country. He had already been a radical hero for some years, having spent time in Tyneside in 1854 when he addressed big audiences.

In January 1863 an insurrection in Poland, seeking national independence from the autocratic and highly repressive Russian Empire, sparked a mood of solidarity among the more politically conscious British workers. Karl Marx, based in London, wrote a proclamation on Poland for the German Workers’ Educational Association in London, which was linked to efforts to collect funds for the Polish movement. There were rallies organised by working class bodies and a trade union deputation petitioned the prime minister, Palmerston, to press for action against Russia.

The central issue generating workers’ support for the Polish struggle – as with the mood of solidarity with Italy – was recognition that it was a democratic struggle. This dovetailed with the desire for greater democracy at home and there is no doubt that these solidarity movements fuelled the resurgence of popular pro-suffrage protest in the following few years. 

Interestingly, the proclamation written by Marx refers in passing to the most important international solidarity movement of the period:

‘The English working class has reaped everlasting historic honour by its enthusiastic mass meetings held to crush the repeated attempts of the ruling classes to intervene on the side of the American slave-holders.’

This was high praise indeed, especially from someone who had spent the 1850s in a gloomy mood about the passivity and apparent conservatism of the British working class. It referred to a nationwide movement of working class solidarity with the struggle of the North to win the American Civil War.

Lincoln’s declaration of the abolition of slavery on New Year’s Day 1863 was the turning point. After that a movement of solidarity mushroomed, with overwhelmingly working class mass meetings demanding that the British government should not intervene to support the South. There were close economic links between the British ruling class and the Southern slave-owners.

A high point in the solidarity movement was in March 1863 when a mass meeting, organised by the London trades council, was packed out. This was despite it being held in St James’ Hall, London’s largest indoor meeting space.  With Palmerston seriously considering sending the British navy to attack Northern forces, this was in effect a mass anti-war rally. The resolution put before this mass meeting contained the line:

‘The cause of labour is the same all over the world’ 

It was a distinctively working class slogan and, in such a context, one that encompassed black American slaves and ex-slaves.

All of these currents fed into the launch, in September 1864, of the International Working Men’s Association, later dubbed the First International. Marx was commissioned to write the association’s Inaugural Address, which combined class politics with internationalism.  It became a crucial vehicle for developing links between labour movements across borders in the following years, as well as a step forward for independent working class organisation in Britain.

The relevance for today

Why interest ourselves in this distant history now? There are, I think, three reasons why this is especially pertinent for us today.

Firstly, the movements of the 1860s remind us that working class politics is not limited to the Labour Party. There is a rich history of working class struggle, including on profoundly political issues, that predates the emergence of the Labour Party. And since the Labour Party was founded, the labour movement has continued to be about championing political demands in the workplaces, streets and communities, not merely a matter of electoral politics.

Secondly, the period illustrates how working class self-organising and collective action are possible even when there is a low level of workplace struggle. This is relevant to us, as we have had nearly three decades of historically low levels of strike action.

But these kinds of political action can feed into greater confidence among workers to take strike action. There were interesting and fertile connections between these international campaigns and workers’ combativity in the 1860s, but we can see this even more powerfully if we jump forward to the 1880s – when unemployed demonstrations and agitation for Irish home rule fuelled the historically momentous strike wave at the end of the decade.

Thirdly, we are reminded that international solidarity has a long, proud and varied tradition in the working class, here in Britain as it does elsewhere. This has been especially significant – and continues to be – when we consider Britain’s historic imperial role and the centrality of nationalism and racism to ruling ideology.

Anti-war and anti-imperialist positions ought to be integral to left-wing politics and should be promoted by socialists within and through the broad labour movement. Internationalist sentiments were often widespread among workers in the 1860s and, with the aid of socialists, these were the basis for important solidarity movements that undercut nationalism and racism. This is a crucial lesson for today.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).