Ralph Darlington, Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 (Pluto 2023), ix, 336pp. Ralph Darlington, Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 (Pluto 2023), ix, 336pp.

Ralph Darlington’s history of the ‘Great Unrest’ has important lessons for working-class organisation and politics today, finds Lindsey German

There are all too many historians and commentators willing to consign class struggle to the past. They perpetrate the idea that strikes and other forms of industrial action are a sort of costume drama, something that our grandparents and great grandparents did to fight against brutal Victorian employers, but which have little relevance today. Yet what has been taking place in Britain in recent months, or in France where there are widespread strikes against the raising of the retirement age, demonstrate that the latest chapter of class struggle is being written in real time.

Ralph Darlington’s new book covers what might seem distant history with a detailed attention to the events themselves and their political context, but which is also brought into a new light through the current strike wave.

This extremely useful book is the story of the Great Unrest: the four years of very high levels of industrial struggle in Britain and Ireland from 1910-1914, which were only halted by the outbreak of the First World War. It was greater in scale and duration than its nearest predecessor, the movement for the New Unions, which took place mainly in London in the late 1880s. Like all great waves of such struggle it involved many who were previously unorganised, including women and the unskilled. At its height, it shook the employers and government to the core and showed an alternative power able to organise society.

A labour uprising

Darlington argues that it is an underestimate to call this movement an ‘unrest’ – hence the title of the book stressing revolt. There were a huge number of strikes over wages and conditions in these years, including national disputes in the coalfields, joined at various points by seamen, dockers, transport and rail-workers, and also localised or individual factory strikes such as Black Country chain-maker women, female workers in the sweated industries making jam, pickles and sweets in Bermondsey, and a London building workers’ lockout in 1914.

The background to the strikes was one of growing and obvious inequality and poverty, of very low wages in many industries, of vicious employer tactics including widespread use of ‘blackleg’ labour, and of state violence in the form of police and army repression which were used especially in the South Wales coalfields and the city of Liverpool, of lockouts and intensified work processes by the employers.

The strikes caught fire and spread to different industries and different parts of the country. It was not all an upward movement, many were defeated, sometimes replaced by scabs and sometimes starved back to work. But there were also important victories, and the strikes had a very important ‘demonstration effect’, which helped them to spread across thousands of workplaces and to build the unions. There were cases where the strikes led to violent outbreaks, often as a result of employers trying to bring in scab labour or following attacks by police and army. The seamen’s strike in Cardiff in June 1911 was fiercely fought, with fighting between police and strike supporters, especially over the introduction of strikebreaking Chinese workers, whose luggage was looted and burnt, and was followed by attacks on Chinese laundries.

Despite the army and police presence, the strikes spread to various other industries in and around the docks, including factory-working women who threw casks of beer from the local brewery into the docks. A contemporary report says of these strikes: ‘In many [cases] there was not a single member of a trade union. But these poor, disorganised workers seemed to grasp the principle of unity as though they had been gifted with a new vision’ (p.91). They wore their Sunday best to march to the union headquarters. George Dangerfield in his The Strange Death of Liberal England makes a similar point about the Bermondsey striking women dressed in feather boas and Sunday clothes, as if ‘their strike [was] some holiday of the soul, long overdue’ (p.161).

This uprising of those who number among the most exploited and oppressed is a feature of major social upheavals, including strike waves. And this wave, like those before and since, did not occur in a vacuum, but against a background of real social and political unrest. In those years, it went alongside two other major social movements: that of women for the vote, which was denied to all women (and many working-class men) until 1918. The suffragettes and suffragists provided a major challenge to the Liberal government. There was also the question of Irish Home Rule. The whole of Ireland was then ruled from London and there was increasing nationalist feeling among the Irish and their supporters, and increasing reactionary opposition to any breakup of empire from the right.

These issues – and others such as poverty or growing militarism – cross fertilised. The great Dublin Lockout of 1913-14 was an industrial dispute against the city’s carters by the Irish capitalist William Martin Murphy, and is considered part of the Great Unrest, well covered in the book. But it also fed into the desire for independence. Women’s issues were taken up by many who supported the strikes. The general political instability of these years also led to growth in socialist organisation. Ralph Darlington discusses the various organisations of the far or radical left, such as the ILP, BSP and SLP, and shows them or certainly their individual members, committed to and often highly involved in the strikes, but also looks at some of the weaknesses, which were substantial.

The role of consciousness

The big question about the whole four years of intense and often bitter struggle is why didn’t it succeed, or at least not on the scale that was necessary?

There’s no simple answer. At least part of it lies in questions of political consciousness, and to what extent the workers who struck in such numbers saw themselves as involved only in immediate battles over wages and conditions or in a wider social conflict. Connected, to what extent did at least some of those workers begin to draw the lessons of the disputes to mount a challenge to the whole basis of society? The truth is, any dispute will contain workers with different attitudes to these questions, with some prepared to accept limited gains, while others see the disputes opening up changes in ideas and the possibility of political challenge. Within the same worker there can be what Marxists term ‘contradictory consciousness’: fully supporting class solidarity, or regarding the battle as between ‘them and us’, but at the same time accepting divisions over Irish independence (a major source of weakness in parts of the British and Irish working class), or supporting patriotism and war, or objecting to women working in certain jobs.

None of this is helped by the existing political structures. The trade-union movement is both highly bureaucratised, controlled by a full-time apparatus which is satisfied with negotiating compromise, and it is sectional, looking to its own trades and members, rather than at the working class or even trade-union movement as a whole. This leads to a division between the bureaucracy and the union’s rank and file, who do not have the same concern to settle for less than they want, and who all too often see the disputes taken out of their hands by the full-time negotiators.

It’s not a surprise or an accident that the left is so often heavily involved in industrial disputes, or that Lenin once referred to trade unions as schools of revolution. Strikes help to politicise workers, freeing them temporarily from the daily grind of work, revealing to them the true nature of the exploitation they suffer under capitalism, and opening them up to a number of ideas which challenge the dominant bourgeois ideology. This happens to a minority who then look to political organisation.

Political organisation

That needs to be able to overcome the frequent division of political parties of the left: the tendency to separate politics and economics when considering action. Classically in Britain, this is represented by Labourism, which tends to see politics as what happens in parliament, with trade unions concerned much more with ‘bread and butter’ economic issues. But this separation has dogged much of the left. This includes the far left even when it tries to navigate the dangers of syndicalism on the one hand, which heavily prioritises concentration on industrial matters, or parliamentarianism, which decrees that political change must be carried out through the legislature, rather than through class struggle, by MPs acting on behalf of the rest of us.

Darlington discusses some of the failings of the left, which was quite influential in this period, but tended towards this dichotomy. Its political failings meant not just separating issues like women and Ireland from industrial and trade-union questions, but also failing to challenge the state in its various forms. This was particularly true on the question of war, with disastrous consequences. For the Great Unrest came to a full stop in the summer of 1914 as strikes were suspended and the majority of the working class, including trade-union members, trade-union leaders and MPs, fell in behind their ruling class and supported the slaughter which was to claim twenty million lives over the next four years. Only a minority of socialists refused to do so: John Maclean in Scotland, suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst in east London, and some leading ILP figures like Hardie, Macdonald and Maxton, were all prominent examples.

But the struggle was subsumed for a relatively short time. Even during the war, often in illegal conditions, strikes in 1917-18 in Britain stood at half the levels of 1910-14, a remarkable fact as they were against both trade-union officials and the state, and often led by anti-war lefts who had radicalised during the Great Unrest (p.275). Britain was hit by bigger struggles after the war, as the conflict ended in a wave of revolution across Europe.

I would very much recommend this book, written by an industrial-relations academic who is also a socialist with great sympathies for the strikers. My only questions on it are that it is a bit too academically structured, and it would benefit from more in-depth discussion on strikes and working-class consciousness. It details a great moment in British and Irish working-class history, one where possibilities of fundamental change seemed possible. And while the strikes today are only at the beginning of the process, this period shows the possibilities and also the obstacles to developing successful strikes and strong working-class organisation. That depends on building at the grassroots, among the rank and file, and on a political basis which tries to bring together economic and ideological struggles.

Before you go

Counterfire is growing faster than ever before

We need to raise £20,000 as we are having to expand operations. We are moving to a bigger, better central office, upping our print run and distribution, buying a new printer, new computers and employing more staff.

Please give generously.

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

Tagged under: