03. Prehistory: Industrial Struggle and the 'Rebel' Movement

Submitted by Steven. on December 18, 2012

The years leading up to the War were marked by massive industrial unrest; indeed the period 1911-1914 was called the 'labour war' at the time.1 In 1912 well over 40 million working days were lost due to strikes. The old leaderships of both the trade unions and the established socialist parties were found wanting, the former craft-ridden and frag- mented, and the latter primarily oriented towards 'gas and water' socialism and deeply compromised with the Liberals. Both these strands were uncomprehending of and unsympathetic towards the growing movement of industrial and social unrest. The immediate pre-War period consequently saw the emergence of a wide range of industrially oriented groupings, the women's movements, and broadly based networks bringing together the various strands of the new 'rebel' milieu. These currents had little time for parliamentary and municipal manoeuvnngs. During the years 1911-1914 there were wave upon wave of strikes in North London. Among those affected, some of them several times, were: printers, mineral water workers (mostly women), carmen, coal porters, railwaymen, laundrywomen, whitelead workers, tram men, french polishers, envelope makers (women), schoolchildren, bootmakers, engineers, butchers, bakers (I am not sure if there were any candlestick makers involved in the various strikes in the gold, silver and allied trades in Clerkenwell), painters and decorators, busmen, building workers, and electricians. Many of these disputes were marked by violent clashes; for example, during the carmen's strike of August 1911 at least one man (and probably two) was killed on the picket line in North London, and there were also numerous arrests. In answer to this movement the government created its own strikebreaking organisation, the National Reserve, the Islington branch of which alone had nearly 1,000 members. 2

In response to this situation, new types of radical industrially- oriented organisations emerged. These were very active in Islington and North London generally; for example, the Advocates of Industrial Unionism 3 had an Islington group as early as 1907, the Industrialist League 4 had a local branch by February 1909, the Industrial Democracy League 5 was active locally, and immediately before the War the Industrial Workers of the World had a strong Local. 6

Alongside these specialised groupings were wider based organisations, of which the North London Herald League, formed in 1913, was the most important, although the local Clarion Fellowship- in spite of the chauvinism of Robert Blatchford - played a similar role. These tendencies shared a common critical attitude towards both the collaboration of the Labour Party with the Liberals, 7 and the failure of trade union leaders to support the industrial movement effectively. Other areas of common ground were the rejection of the tepid official Labour movement and the established socialist parties on the whole range of women s issues.

The membership of these 'insurgent' groupings included members of a wide range of political tendencies, the British Socialist Party (formerly the SDF), the ILP, the anarchists, the women's movement, industrial militants, the SLP, even ex-members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, 8 as well as activists not associated with any particular group. It is interesting and significant that in this period of the most unparalleled industrial and social unrest both the ILP and BSP substantially declined in membership nationally.

It is worth mentioning here how different things were for the socialist movement - and indeed everyone else - before the advent of radio and television. All mass communication depended on either the printed or unaided spoken word. For socialists these two modes were closely associated, for the main source of sales of their literature was at open air meetings. To stop these meetings would have reduced the movement to impotence. It is not surprising, therefore, that from the 1880s a considerable proportion of the activity of socialists had been directed towards the defence and extension of the right to hold open-air meetings. There was a very rich street life during this period, and many got the basis of a surprisingly wide education simply by attending these universities of the streets. There were large attendances at many of these meetings, sometimes several hundred. They often went on till late at night, even into the early hours, and the more prominent speakers were very well known indeed. I estimate that just before the War there was something like thirty reasonably regular speaking pitches in Finsbury and Islington alone, although some venues were much more important than others. This perhaps helps partially explain the determination with which open air meetings were continued during the War, for if they had stopped the socialist movement might as well have shut up shop. R. M. (Dick) Fox, one of the founders of the North London Herald League, described its composition in his book Smoky Crusade: 9

The League had thrown its net wide and we had a membership of active militant people- not all militant about the same things, but in sympathy with all rebel causes, all movements of the oppressed and downtrodden.

Of the more established groups, both the BSP and the ILP had branches on a constituency basis. In addition, local trade union branches, along with the ILP, were organised into the Islington Trades and Labour Party, which had about 45 affiliates at the outbreak of War. There were similar set-ups in other parts of North London. Besides these organisations there was a whole range of other groupings: The Clarion Cycle Club, the Clarion Fellowship, the Women's Labour League, two Socialist Sunday Schools, the Fabians, the Women's Trade Union League, even the North London Socialist Orchestra with its choir, and the Clarion Players, a drama group. Then there was the Co-operative movement, the Co-operative Women's Guilds, and the Brotherhood Church; even these do not complete the list.

But it was from the 'rebel' movement that the major components of the movement against the rapidly approaching War came, and as war fever mounted in 1914 these elements had already made their views clear. During the pre-War recruiting drive the North London Herald League issued the following leaflet:

A GOOD SOLDIER A good soldier is a blind, heartless machine. At the word of command he will put a bullet in the brain of the bravest and noblest man who has ever lived. He respects neither the grey hair of age nor the weakness of childhood. He is unmoved by tears, by prayers or by argument. He is indifferent to human thought or human feelings. DON'T BE A SOLDIER - BE A MAN! 10

Perhaps the clearest expression of the views held by radicals - quite prophetically in view of events at the end of the War - was a speech by Jack Wills 11 at the North London Clarion Fellowship in January 1914.

He said:

I have not forgotten what a shoddy part the Police and Army play. It is argued by Parliamentary Socialists that we will never be successful until we have captured parliament and thereby captured the forces of Army, Navy and Police. We say we do not think it possible to capture these forces, but what we do think is this, we realise that a large proportion of the Army, Navy and Police are made up of members of our class, that they are forced into these institutions through economic reasons, mostly because they are unemployed, we have got to teach them that they must not shoot their own class, but that they must use their weapons, if they have to use them, against the capitalist class. We are told this is sedition; of course it is! Almost every word of the Socialist philosophy is sedition. You will gradually get more revolutionaries in the Army and Navy.

In time they will do as we ask and refuse to shoot and bludgeon members of the working class. I do not think it is possible even today to use arms in a big industrial struggle. It is quite easy for the capitalist class with the power at their disposal to force some of the workers back, but they could not force back to work at the end of a bayonet over a million men who are on strike at one time. Another point, when the Army is split up looking after industrial quarters, it will come into contact with the workers, and into touch with their revolutionary ideas.

Even the official labour leadership became involved in the anti-War agitation and participated in a rally opposing the impending War at Trafalgar Square on August 2nd, 1914, which issued a manifesto signed by Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson calling on the movement to: 12

Hold mass demonstrations against war in every industrial centre, compel the governing class and their Press who are eager to commit you to co-operate with Russia to keep silence and respect the decision of the overwhelming majority of the people, who will have neither part nor lot in such infamy. . . . Workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking Imperialists today, once and for all. . . . Proclaim that for you the days of plunder and butchery have gone by; send messages of peace and fraternity to your fellows who have less liberty than you. Down with class rule. Down with the rule of brute force. Down with the War. Up with the peaceful rule of the people. 13

Two days later - on August 4th - War was declared.

  • 1 All names marked * in subsequent notes were members of the North London Herald League. For the period before the War I have depended heavily for background on two books which I recommend heartily to those who want to stucfy the subjectfurther. They are: John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: the Lost History of the British Anarchists, 1978. Bob Holton, British Syndicalism 1900-1914,1976. A third book which covers the whole period of this text and which is essential reading is Walter Kendall, Revolutionary Movements in Britain 1900-1921,1969.
  • 2 . The National Reserve was a forerunner of the Organisation for the Mainten- ance of Supply (OMS) which was used to strikebreak during the General Strike. The National Reserve never seems to have been used.
  • 3 The Advocates ofIndustrial Unionism (AIU) was founded in August 1907; it was dominated by the De Leonist Socialist Labour Party (SLP), although by no means all its supporters were members of that party. Among its leading figures were W. O. Angilly, who was National Treasurer, and E. J. B. Allen who was editor of the AIU's paper Industrial Unionist; both were ex-members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB - see earlier footnote). Allen had joined the SDF in the 1890s; he emigrated to New Zealand before the War where he was active until at least 1936. Active local members of the AIU included Fred Messer, * a french polisher, and Les Boyne, * a gasworker; Boyne was an interesting illustration of the political fluidity of the period. At first a member of Prehistory: Industrial Struggle and the 'Rebel' Movement the SDF, by 1906 he was a member of the Islington Branch of the SPGB; he then joined the SLP, finally becoming an anarcho-syndicalist. After the war Boyne was an official of the Gasworkers' Union. )
  • 4 The Industrialist League split from the AIU in 1908; its paper The Industrialist was edited by E. J. B. Allen; Les Boyne was also editor for a while. The League was associated with the Chicago anti-parliamentarian IWW, and had a strong local group whose members included Henry Sara* and Walter Ponder,* both active anarchists, and W. G. E. Smith, a sheet metal worker.
  • 5 The Industrial Democracy League (IDL) emerged from the collapse of Tom Mann's Industrial Democracy Education League (IDEL) in 1913. Its paper Solidarity was edited by Norman Young, secretary of West Islington BSP. National figures of the IDL included Jack Tanner, J. T. Murphy - who incidentally was secretary of the Sheffield Herald League - Jack Wills and W. F. Watson.*
  • 6 Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Its British Section was formed in 1913, and its paper Industrial Worker was at various times edited by R. M. (Dick) Fox,* an engineer and another ex-SPGBer, and A. B. Elsbury,* a tailor. Other early local members included Albert Young, * a glass blower, Victor Beacham, * a painter, Lesley Boyne,* and Charlie Lahr. The local IWW was closely associated with the North London Herald League (NLHL) and met regularly at the same premises, the North Islington BSP headquarters at Fellowship Hall, 473 Hornsey Road. This relationship continued throughout the War.
  • 7 Of the 37 Labour MPs at the outbreak of War, 36 had been elected as a result of electoral deals with the Liberals. Collaboration, whether on a local or national level, did not stop at electoral pacts.
  • 8 It is difficult to integrate the Socialist Party of Great Britain into any account of wider working-class politics because its policy of hostility to all other political groups, and rejection as an organisation of participation in any partial economic or social struggles, effectively excluded it from association with other tendencies. But no account would be complete without some reference to them. Before the War, they were a substantial presence in the area. Their Tottenham Branch had over 100 members, and there were also effective branches in Islington and Hackney. The SPGB also had a very high proportion of the ablest open-air speakers, notably Alex Anderson of Tottenham, who by common consent was the best socialist orator of his day. The SPGB's principled Marxism had perhaps a wider influence than it would like to admit.
  • 9 R. M. Fox, Smokey Crusade, 1938, p. 157.
  • 10 R. M. Fox, op cit, p. 160. This text is a paraphrase ofa widely distributed piece attributed toJack London, and was first published in the US in 1911. Ironically Jack London supported the War.
  • 11 Jack Wills was a South London bricklayer and a leading syndicalist, he was a member of the IDL and one of the founders of Solidarity. Wills and other building trade militants were so disgusted with the record of the trade union leaders during the 1914 building workers' strike that they formed the Building Workers' Industrial Union a few days before the outbreak of War in August 1914. In spite of what must be one of the greatest errors of timing ever (the BWIU was one of the very few unions to oppose the War), the combined harassment of the authorities and leaders of the established unions, the union, which had a strong Islington branch, continued in existence until 1923.
  • 12 Although this meeting was organised by the Labour Party, it had originally been suggested and convened by the national Daily Herald League and it was only taken over by the Labour Party later. See George Lansbury, My Life, J 928, p,205.
  • 13 See Wal Hannington, Industrial History in Wartime, 1940, p. 22.