17. Aftermath

Submitted by Steven. on January 23, 2013

What happened to the anti-War movement after the disappearance of the simple purities of opposition to the War? The answer is a complex one. The fact is that the movement fragmented. Some found that they were not so radical after all, that they were opposed to the War - or war in general - rather than the social system which produced it. This category included most of those whose opposition had been primarily religious or ethical, although many of this group went on to play substantial parts in the wider labour movement.

Others, exhausted by the tensions and stresses of the struggle, felt the need to pick up the pieces of their disrupted lives, and retreated temporarily or permanently into private life.

But many of those actively involved in the radical anti-War movement went on to participate in one way or another in the socialist movement, which had itself been profoundly changed by the War. As we have seen, some went into the Communist Party when it was formed in 1920, while others joined the ILP and a whole range of other socialist organisations; still others, like Walter Ponder, Guy Aldred, and - eventually - Charlie Lahr ploughed their own independent path as they always had. But without doubt, ironically in view of its record during the War, the greatest single beneficiary of the dispersal of the movement was the Labour Party.

In 1918 the National Labour Party was reorganised, and it began to allow individual membership. At the same time there had been a huge growth in the trade union movement during and just after the War. In 1913 the membership of registered unions had been 3,205,000, in itself the highest figure ever until that time; in 1918 it had reached 5,259,000, and by 1920 the total was 6,929,000. A very high proportion of this new membership came from the ranks of semi- and unskilled workers, many of them women.

The experience of Islington Labour Party is instructive. In April 1918, the old Islington Trades and Labour Council, announced that its affiliated membership had doubled since the beginning of the War, mainly due to the growth of affiliated trade union membership. In May 1918 it formally restructured itself on a constituency and individual membership basis.

In the November 1918 'Coupon' General Election all the Labour candidates in Islington were defeated, albeit with fairly substantial votes. In April 1919, however, Labour won 15 of the 30 seats on the Board of Guardians, and in the November 1919 council elections 44 of the 60 council seats were won. For the first time Labour was in power locally.

Many of this first generation of Labour Party members were determined that Labour politics should not degenerate into the clique-ridden secrecy so characteristic then and now of municipal politics. It was because of this determination - frustrated, as it turned out - that just before the 1919 council elections the South Islington Labour Party passed the following resolution:

That in the event of the Labour Party winning the municipal election - that the Chief Whip and the Chairman be elected by the whole party and that reports should be given from time to time by its members, and that decisions on all matters of principle should be sought at the centre [the central Islington Labour Party] which consists of delegates of the whole party.

This decision seems to have sunk without trace.

The new Labour Party both nationally and locally was largely an amalgam. It contained elements ranging from renegade liberals with a layer of 'socialists' and trade unionists who had for the first time tasted the fruits of power and patronage during the boom of committees, commissions and councils which had been set up to support the prosecution of the War; to a wide range of radicals and ordinary working people who, without any previous experience to go on, felt that the time had come to make Islington a borough fit for heroes to live in.

The process of growth continued. In May 1920 Islington Labour Party announced that its membership had increased by 150% in the previous year. There seems in this period a strong climate of euphoria, a belief in the imminence of the New Jerusalem, and a feeling that for this to come about bygones must be bygones, that the lion must lie down with the lamb, the dove with the hawk, and the rabid 'patriot' with the 'absolutist' .

This spirit couldn't last and fundamental differences began to emerge. In December 1920 E. H. King, Islington's first Labour mayor, called on the police to eject the unemployed from the disused Essex Road Library, after previously granting them use of it. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed - the vast majority of whom were ex-servicemen - describing them as 'unemployables' and accusing the men's organisation of financial dishonesty.1 The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief to which they had earlier agreed following a large unemployed demonstration.2 From then on there was virtual civil war between the right and left wings of the party, with the right generally on top; many radicals left the party in disgust, the honeymoon was over, and the struggle inside the Islington parties culminated in 1926 with splits within at least two Islington constituencies.3 Plus ca change!

The early unemployed movement was one of the areas where the spirit of the radical anti-War movement was kept alive. In the early 1920s, ex-members of the NLHL played a prominent part in struggles in Poplar, Shoreditch, Islington, Finsbury, Tottenham, Walthamstow and even Battersea.4

Just as the struggles and changes which took place in 1914-1918 were rooted in the pre-War movement, these wartime conflicts had a huge influence on the shape of the post-War political and industrial scene. It is important to emphasise the massive changes which the War wrought upon the political environment, but it is also essential to recognise the continuity with the previous epoch not only of class struggle but of class collaboration too. Many of those who were ardent patriots during the War went on to become leading figures in the Labour Party. On the other hand, the War and the complex matrix of struggle which took place during it played a central part in radicalising a whole new generation of socialists, who in turn helped ensure that the immediate post-War years were among the most tumultuous in our history.

  • 1 This was ironic, as in May 1922 E. H. King was accused by South Islington Labour Party of selling their furniture for his own benefit. The matter was eventually smoothed over but not before several leading members had resigned in disgust.
  • 2 Among the leaders of this unemployed agitation were Harry Lynch and H. E. Martin, both of whom seem to have been associated with the NLHL; Martin had also been a member of the WSF.
  • 3 These were the East and North Islington constituency parties. The split-off parties joined the Communist Party-dominated National Left Wing Movement, and had a separate existence until about 1929, when the Left Wing Movement was ditched by the CP
  • 4 There was a notable struggle in Shoreditch in the autumn of 1921 when a 'no rent' strike was organised by the Shoreditch Unemployed Committee, which incidentally met at the Brotherhood Church. The borough was divided into 16 divisions, each with a marshal, while each street had a picket. The whole area was swamped with stickers printed with the slogan 'No work, No rent'; a policeman was even seen: walking down Pitfield Street with one stuck on his back.

    A leading participant in this struggle was A. B. Elsbury, secretary of the Shoreditch Unemployed Committee, who had been a member of both the IWW and the NLHL. By the time of these events he was a member of the Communist Party; later on he became an early Trotskyist. (For accounts of the rent strike see, Islington Gazette, September 9th. 1921, and an article by Elsbury in The Communist, October 8th, 1921.) (The 'no rent' slogan goes back to the late 1880s and early 1890s when an agitation along these lines were carried out in Clerkenwell, South Islington and the East End by anarchists and socialists, some of them associated with the Socialist League.)