A Working Man's Party

Submitted by libcom on August 5, 2005

Written: mid-July 1881
Published: No. 12, July 23, 1881, as a leading article
Reproduced from the newspaper
Transcribed: [email protected], Labor Day 1996

How often have we not been warned by friends and sympathisers, "Keep aloof from party politics!" And they were perfectly right, as far as present English party politics are concerned. A labour organ must be neither Whig nor Tory, neither Conservative nor Liberal, or even Radical, in the actual party sense of that word. Conservatives, Liberals, Radicals, all of them represent but the interests of the ruling classes, and various shades of opinion predominating amongst landlords, capitalists, and retail tradesmen. If they do represent the working class, they most decidedly misrepresent it. The working class has interests of its own, political as well as social. How it has stood up for what it considers its social interests, the history of the Trades Unions and the Short Time movement shows. But its political interests it leaves almost entirely in the hands of Tories, Whigs, and Radicals, men of the upper class, and for nearly a quarter of a century the working class of England has contented itself with forming, as it were, the tail of the "Great Liberal Party".

This is a political position unworthy of the best organised working class of Europe. In other countries the working men have been far more active. Germany has had for more than ten years a Working Men's party (the Social-Democrats), which owns ten seats in Parliament, and whose growth has frightened Bismarck into those infamous measures of repression of which we give an account in another column. Yet in spite of Bismarck, the Working Men's party progresses steadily; only last week it carried sixteen elections for the Mannheim Town Council and one for the Saxon Parliament. In Belgium, Holland, and Italy the example of the Germans has been imitated; in every one of these countries a Working Men's party exists, [1] though the voter's qualification there is too high to give them a chance of sending members to the Legislature at present. In France the Working Men's party is just now in full process of organisation; it has obtained the majority in several Municipal Councils at the last elections, and will undoubtedly carry several seats at the general election for the Chamber next October. Even in America where the passage of the working class to that of farmer, trader, or capitalist, is still comparatively easy, the working men find it necessary to organise themselves as an independent party. [2] Everywhere the labourer struggles for political power, for direct representation of his class in the Legislature -- everywhere but in Great Britain.

And yet there never was a more widespread feeling in England than now, that the old parties are doomed, that the old shibboleths have become meaningless, that the old watchwords are exploded, that the old panaceas will not act any longer. Thinking men of all classes begin to see that a new line must be struck out, and that this line can only be in the direction of democracy. But in England, where the industrial and agricultural working class forms the immense majority of the people, democracy means the dominion of the working class, neither more nor less. Let, then, that working class prepare itself for the task in store for it, -- the ruling of this great empire; let them understand the responsibilities which inevitably will fall to their share. And the best way to do this is to use the power already in their hands, the actual majority they possess in every large town in the kingdom, to send to Parliament men of their own order. With the present household suffrage, [3] forty or fifty working men might easily be sent to St. Stephen's, [4] where such an infusion of entirely new blood is very much wanted indeed. With only that number of working men in Parliament, it would be impossible to let the Irish Land Bill [5] become, as is the case at present, more and more an Irish Land Bull, namely, an Irish Landlords' Compensation Act; it would be impossible to resist the demand for a redistribution of seats, for making bribery really punishable, for throwing election expenses, as is the case everywhere but in England, on the public purse, etc.

Moreover, in England a real democratic party is impossible unless it be a working men's party. Enlightened men of other classes (where they are not so plentiful as people would make us believe) might join that party and even represent it in Parliament after having given pledges of their sincerity. Such is the case everywhere. In Germany, for instance, the working-men representatives are not in every case actual working men. But no democratic party in England, as well as elsewhere, will be effectively successful unless it has a distinct working-class character. Abandon that, and you have nothing but sects and shams.

And this is even truer in England than abroad. Of Radical shams there has been unfortunately enough since the break-up of the first working men's party which the world ever produced -- the Chartist party. Yes, but the Chartists were broken up and attained nothing. Did they, indeed? Of the six points of the People's Charter, [6] two, vote by ballot and no property qualification, are now the law of the land. A third, universal suffrage, is at least approximately carried in the shape of household suffrage; a fourth, equal electoral districts, is distinctly in sight, a promised reform of the present Government. So that the break-down of the Chartist movement has resulted in the realisation of fully one-half of the Chartist programme. And if the mere recollection of a past political organisation of the working class could effect these political reforms, and a series of social reforms besides, what will the actual presence of a working men's political party do, backed by forty or fifty representatives in Parliament? We live in a world where everybody is bound to take care of himself. Yet the English working class allows the landlord, capitalist, and retail trading classes, with their tail of lawyers, newspaper writers, etc., to take care of its interests. No wonder reforms in the interest of the workman come so slow and in such miserable dribbles. The workpeople of England have but to will, and they are the masters to carry every reform, social and political, which their situation requires. Then why not make that effort?


[1] In 1879, as a result of the merger of the Flemish and the Brabant socialist parties, the Belgian Socialist Party (Parti socialiste belge) was formed.

In 1881, the Social-Democratic groups in the Netherlands formed the Social-Democratic Union (Sociaal-Demokraatische Bond).

In the same year, the politically advanced and class-conscious workers and revolutionary intellectuals formed the Revolutionary-Socialist Party of Romagna (Partito Rivoluzionario di Romagna), which was the first step in the work to found an Italian workers' party.

[2] By mid-1878, Social-Democratic parties existed in Germany (from 1869), Switzerland (from June 1878), Denmark (from 1876), Portugal (from 1875), and Belgium (from 1877). In the USA, the unity congress of socialist organizations held in Philadelphia founded the Labor party of the USA, which in December 1877 was named the Socialist Labor Party of the USA.

[3] The reference is to the second electoral reform in England introduced in 1867. Under the new law, the property qualification in the counties was reduced to £12 of annual rent for tenant farmers; in the cities and towns suffrage was granted to all householders and lessees of houses, as well as to tenants residing in the locality for at least a year, and paying no less than £10 in rent.

[4] St. Stephen's -- the chapel where the House of Commons held its sessions from 1547 and until the fire of 1834.

[5] The Irish Land Bill was passed on August 22, 1881 for the purpose of distracting the Irish peasants from the revolutionary struggle. The Bill restricted the landlords' right to evict tenants from their plots if they paid the rent in time; the rent was fixed for 15 years in advance. Despite the fact that the 1881 Law gave the landlords a chance to sell their lands to the state at a profit, and that the fixed rent remained very high indeed, the English landowners still opposed the Law trying to preserve their unlimited rule in Ireland. Despite the Law, illegal evictions from the land continued, which provoked the resistance of the Irish tenants.

[6] The People's Charter, which contained the demands of the Chartists, was published in the form of a Parliamentary Bill on May 8, 1838. It contained six points: universal suffrage (for men of 21 and over), annual Parliaments, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualification for MPs and payment of MPs. Petitions urging the adoption of the People's Charter were turned down by Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848.