A review by Mike Hamlin
I first learnt about British Labour History as a student in the 1960s, through such books as Allen Hutt’s British Trade Unionism (1941), and A. L. Morton & George Tates’s The British Labour Movement (1957). These were grand, chronological narratives, starting early in the
nineteenth century and finishing around the time of the second world war. They would cover, in the course of a few brief chapters – The Growth and Decline of Chartism, The New Unionism 1880-1900, The Origins of the Labour Party 1900-1910, The Great Unrest 1910 -14, The Post-War Crisis 1919-24 and finally, The General Strike and After 1925-29.
They were written in a clear, confident style and broadly reflected the political outlook of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Empirical exemplification was sometimes rather thin but the overall narrative was straightforward and often uplifting, even through periods of setback and temporary defeat. Morton and Tate in particular, had a well-thumbed chapter on ‘Socialism and the Great Unrest’ and judging by my detailed annotations, I must have used it as the basis for more than one long forgotten essay or talk!
Re-reading for this review, much came flooding back and I was surprised how well it had prepared me for Ralph Darlington’s important new study. ‘Labour Unrest’ is here, more accurately, replaced by ‘Labour Revolt’ and the incisive focus on the years 1910-14 are given the space they deserve across 336 detailed pages. The book’s starting point is that the ‘Labour Revolt’ that swept Britain in the four years leading up to First World War was one of the most sustained, dramatic and violent explosions of industrial militancy and social conflict that this country has ever experienced.
‘The strike wave involved a number of large-scale disputes in strategically important sections of the economy. A protracted strike in the South Wales coalfield in 1910-11 was followed in the summer of 1911 by national seamen’s, dockers’ and railway workers’ strikes, as well as a Liverpool general transport strike. There were national miners’ and London transport workers’ strikes in 1912, a series of Midlands metal workers’ strikes and Dublin transport workers’ lockout in 1913, and a London building workers’ lockout in 1914.’
During this time, a significant proportion of the industrial workforce took part in 4,600 other strikes for higher wages, better working conditions and union recognition. Women workers were also involved, often for the first time and school students walked out of their schools in the September of 1911. The strikes were on a totally new scale and mobilised a wide and diverse range of often younger workers.
‘It was a revolt dominated by unskilled and semi-skilled workers, encompassing both members of established and recognised trade unions, and also workers hitherto unorganized and/or unrecognized who became engaged in a fight to build collective organization and for union recognition against the hostility of many employers. Action largely took place unofficially and independently of national trade union leaderships’
This youthful energy and the spontaneous dynamic of the militancy, from both men and women, once unleashed, took most of the more traditional Labour movement leaders by surprise. However, Jim Larkin, a leader of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, acutely and accurately observed that ‘labour has lost its old humility and its respectful finger touching its cap’ . Outcomes were impressive. Across the four years, overall trade union membership increased by 62%, from 2.5 million in 1910 to 4.1 million in 1914. The proportion of workers who were union members (union density) rose from 14.6% to 23%. And the number of women workers represented by trade unions increased by an encouraging 54%, breaking out into areas beyond its previous textile industry enclave.
Inevitably, there were underlying limitations and weaknesses, serious strike setbacks and defeats. On the industrial front – ‘national trade union officials were able to reassert their authority and control over embryonic rank-and-file networks’. And in terms of national politics – ‘The Liberal government was able to accommodate the simultaneous three ‘rebellions’ (labour strikes, threat of civil war in Ireland and the campaign for women’s suffrage) because they were essentially discrete struggles only bound together tangentially in a diffuse and uncoordinated fashion’. But most significantly of all – ‘the strike wave was to suddenly shudder to a halt, stopped in its tracks by the onset of the First World War in August 1914.
This is an important book, in many ways definitive. For me, its main strength lies in its specific focus on those four crucial years 1910-14. Its structure is also, to my mind, exemplary. It’s arranged in four parts. Part one (two chapters) provides the general backdrop and context to the revolt: industrially, socially, economically and politically. Part two, which forms the majority of the book (five chapters in all), details the scope and outcomes of the strike waves themselves, moving chronologically, across the years under consideration. Part three, is a thematic and analytical assessment of the most distinctive features of the strike wave with a focus on new forms of industrial organization and militancy, along with broader aspects of explicitly political radicalization. Finally, part four looks at the aftermath and legacy, industrially and politically, both during the war years and immediately after.
The concluding bibliography, too often missing from studies these days, is also worthy of a mention. And here, taking up a full chapter-length to itself, we have a resource which is both richly extensive and incredibly useful in its own right.
Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14 fundamentally aligns with Bob Holton’s earlier study British Syndicalism 1900 -1914 (also published by Pluto), in concluding that much of the ‘labour revolt’ of these years acquired ‘proto-syndicalist’ aspects – i.e. demonstrated ‘forms of social action which lie between vague revolt and clear-cut revolutionary action’. At the time, Holton (writing in 1976) made the challenge that ‘writers on the ‘labour unrest’ have not however, taken up and developed this theme. Analysis of social consciousness and behaviour during the strike wave remains extremely thin and often superficial, with the activities and motives of those who participated still rather obscure.’ With this new book, Darlington has categorically risen to Holton’s challenge and has answered each of his points fully and convincingly.
In short, Ralph Darlington and Pluto Press have produced a lively, impeccably researched and politically informed work – it deserves to be read and enjoyed by any serious labour historian.
This review first appeared in the newsletter of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Labour History Society
Labour Revolt in Britain is available at Five Leaves Bookshop or by mail order at fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/product/labour-revolt-in-britain-1910-14/