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Comrade or brother?

Comrade or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement by Mary Davis (Pluto Press, second edition 2009, reviewed by Nathaniel Mehr

April 22, 2009
6 min read

A timely overview of two centuries of British labour history carries hope for the future as well as insights on the past.

The broad thrust of this impressive overview of 200 years of British labour history concerns the dichotomy between a rich radical socialist tradition and an equally influential reformist current. The latter tendency was perhaps best exemplified by the Labour leader Keir Hardie, who at the beginning of the 20th century identified his and the Labour Party’s politics as ‘labourism’: a ‘theory and practice which accepted the possibility of social change within the existing framework of society’.

A syndicalist pamphlet of 1912, The Miners’ Next Step, presents an entirely different conception of working-class politics: ‘an industrial vote will affect the lives and happiness of workmen far more than a political vote … hence it should be more sought after and its privileges more jealously guarded.’ In view of the 25th anniversary of the era-defining miners’ strike of 1984-85, this revised edition is a timely release.

Davis’s survey begins in the early part of the 19th century, when early union leaders realised, well before Marx, that ‘political power, being based on economic wealth, could only be dislodged by workers at the point of production’. The scope for an effective mass movement was limited by divisions of skill and organisational capability, as the organised, skilled sectors pulled away from the unskilled masses, first undercutting support for Chartism and, as the years went by, forming a seemingly exclusive class of their own.

This schism between the ‘labour aristocracy’ and the unorganised majority was reinforced by the ideological construct of ‘mutual self-interest’, which informed an 1869 Royal Commission report praising the culture of ‘mutual forbearance’ that characterised employer-union relations at this time. Up until the 1880s, British trade unionism did not seek a parliamentary voice, preferring to exert indirect influence upon Liberal and Tory politicians through TUC pressure.

The ‘new unionism’ of the 1880s saw workers organised on the principle of mass recruitment – sheer weight of numbers, rather than skill or scarcity, would be the basis of union strength. Davis explains that it was the failure of the well-organised and widely-supported Manningham Mills strike of 1890-91 that convinced labour activists of the importance of political action; the Independent Labour Party was founded in Bradford just two years later.

The ILP’s labourist tradition became well entrenched by the early 20th century, depriving radical Marxist perspectives of a mass following. Davis nonetheless emphasises the important role played by British communists in labour activism throughout most of the 20th century. Developments within the Labour framework also served to marginalise the more radical voices within the party apparatus. Labour’s 1918 constitution prescribed a centralised method of electing the Labour Party leadership, which made no distinction between political affiliates (like the ILP) and trade unions, meaning the latter dominated the national executive, resulting in the marginalisation of the ILP and a loss of influence of the socialist current.

Davis’s study is critical of the self-interested pragmatism of parliamentary and union leaders, attributing the early demise of the 1926 General Strike to ‘the TUC’s reluctance to act, its readiness to negotiate at all times and its ideological unwillingness to recognise the political nature of the strike’. In Davis’s view, the TUC’s decision to call of the strike after just nine days was motivated by a desire to undercut the growing stature of the communists and other militants who had led the mass mobilisation.

Davis is similarly critical of the 1945-51 Labour government, arguing that its unifying concept of a ‘national interest’ was a ‘Fabian illusion’, which ignored the unacknowledged conflict between the true national interest and the profit motive. Examining the post-war government’s conservative colonial record, Davis considers whether the achievements of the welfare state were in fact ‘the ultimate expression’ of the ‘social imperialist’ ideal, which posited that colonial domination formed the basis for British working-class economic well-being.

Concluding that Britain’s reformist and welfare-oriented politics was heavily reliant on the wealth generated by her imperial possessions, Davis attributes the dominance of the labourist consensus in general to ‘the infinite capacity of the first industrial nation to accommodate dissent’. In any event, the long-term development of the Labour Party would see it become gradually detached – in spirit and in substance – from even the reformist activism that had produced it , as its ‘eventual strength and importance as a party able to form the government of Britain turned tail and ultimately mastered its creators’.

A distinguishing feature of Davis’s study is its critical examination of questions of race and gender equality at various junctures. Davis examines the interaction of capitalist imperatives and gender-based ideological constructs in connection with the extension of clerical work – traditionally a male preserve in the 19th century – to women workers in the 20th century, a move that served to cheapen such labour by ultimately ‘feminising’ it.

Davis indicts the labour movement for its failure, even during its most radical phases, to forge meaningful links with the respective struggles of women and ethnic minorities. She describes how the struggles of women to gain acceptance and recognition in the fields of literature, medicine and education barely attracted interest from the political wing of the labour movement in the early part of the 20th century, despite the fact that German and Russian socialists of the Second International (Lenin, Bebel, Clara Zetkin) consistently advocated support for equal rights and women’s franchise. The post-war Labour government’s failure to consolidate women’s wartime gains meant the onus was on women activists themselves to campaign for change, and it was only thanks to their persistent efforts that equal pay legislation was finally passed more than two decades later. Likewise, a general lack of effort to incorporate ethnic minorities resulted in ‘a kind of separate development between the two communities’ that persists to this day.

Davis correctly reminds us that it would be too simplistic to characterise the setbacks suffered by the labour movement as merely a catalogue of betrayals of trade unions. We must not, she insists, conceive of labour history in terms of a ‘capitalist conspiracy in which the trade unions can be seen as the organs of pure class struggle whose interests were sacrificed’. Her examination of various flashpoints of industrial unrest indicates a reality that is at all times highly nuanced and complex, and there is no such thing as an undifferentiated entity called ‘the unions’ that represents the labour movement, or social justice more broadly conceived, as a whole.

Despite its uncompromisingly critical tone, Davis’s study carries a hopeful overriding message. For if at various points in the past 200 years the labour movement has appeared to be attenuated, fragmented and weak, it has shown an ‘uncanny ability to rebuild and renew itself’ that its modern-day obituarists would do well to consider.

Nathaniel Mehr is co-editor of London Progressive Journal

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