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The ‘Free Spirit’ in Revolutionary Britain: Part I – Seekers, Ranters & Quakers in the Civil Wars & Interregnum, 1647-1657.   Leave a comment

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Prophesying the Millennium:

Until 1957, historians had maintained that we could know very little of the real beliefs of the ‘Brethren of the Free Spirit’ or ‘Spiritual Libertines’, since the information we did have came from their enemies. They were accused as regarding themselves as divine beings and of holding that they could, therefore, commit murder, robbery and fornication without sin. But, as Norman Cohn pointed out in the appendix to his iconic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, published that year, the ‘scandalous tales told of them’ were ‘merely conscious or unconscious slanders’. These were accusations which were made against mystical groups of the later middle ages, but they could not be checked in any detail against their own writings. To do that, Cohn looked into the brief but hectic revival of the ‘Free Spirit’ which took place in England during and after the Civil War. 

Like the writings of their predecessors, those of the ‘Ranters’ of the later period were ordered to be burnt. But it was much harder to destroy a whole production of a work than a few manuscripts, and stray copies of Ranter tracts survived. Viewed as historical documents, these tracts have established that the ‘Free Spirit’ really was exactly what it was said to be: a system of self-exaltation amounting to self-deification; a pursuit to of total emancipation which in practice could result in an anarchic eroticism; often also a revolutionary social doctrine which denounced the institution of private property and aimed at its abolition. But the interest of the Ranter literature is not only historical. If the stylistic idiosyncrasies of Abiezer Coppe were sufficiently vigorous and colourful to earn him an honourable place in the gallery of literary eccentrics, Joseph Salmon deserves recognition as a writer of real poetic power.

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Thanks to the work which has been done on the radical religious ideas of Cromwell’s England, not least by Christopher Hill, in his 1972 book, The World Turned Upside Down, there is now no lack of information concerning the social milieu in which the Ranters flourished. Indeed, this author was counselled by his tutors not to pursue research for his PhD on this period on the basis that he would probably have to limit himself to the study of an obscure sect. It was only some years later that I returned it to investigate the Independent puritan enthusiasm which ran high among the officers and soldiers of the New Model Army and among civilians, and that neither the Episcopalian establishment nor the Presbyterian puritans were able to channel the flood of lay religiosity. Many felt that the time had come when God had when God was pouring out his Spirit on all flesh. Ecstasies were everyday occurrences, prophecies were uttered in many quarters, and millennial hopes were rife throughout the population. Cromwell himself, especially before he came to power as Lord General and then Lord Protector, was also moved by such hopes. Thousands of artisans in London and elsewhere lived in daily expectation that through the violence of the civil war the Kingdom of the Saints would be established on English soil and that Christ would return to rule over it.

In the late 1640s, the Quakers were often referred to as ‘Roundhead rogues’, and in May 1648 the ‘Digger’ pamphleteer Gerrard Winstanley made it clear that the word ‘Roundhead’ was used especially as a slur on the political radicals in the New Model. Edward Burrough was mocked as a Roundhead even in his pre-Quaker days. But it appears to have been used mainly in reference to political radicalism, and it was only during the intense period of political instability and uncertainty which followed the execution of the King and ended with the establishment of the Protectorate in 1653. In 1649-50, Winstanley was moved by supernatural illumination to found the ‘Digger’ community near Cobham in Surrey. Convinced that the old world was ‘running up like parchment in the fire, and wearing away’, Winstanley attempted to restore mankind to its ‘Virgin-state’, a primitivist utopian commune in which private property, class distinction and human authority would have no place. At the same time, groups of religious enthusiasts multiplied rapidly. As one pamphleteer remarked in 1651,

… it is no new work of Satan to sow Heresies, and breed Heretickes, but they never came up so thick as in these latter times: They were wont to peep up one and one, but now they sprout out by huddles and clusters (like locusts out of the bottomlesse pit). They now come thronging upon us in swarmes, as the Caterpillars of Aegypt.

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‘High Professors’ & Heretics:

The heresy which this writer had particularly in mind was that of the Ranters. These people, who were also known as ‘high attainers’ and ‘high professors’, became very numerous about 1650. Some were to be found in the Army, where there were cases of officers being cashiered and publicly whipped, and of a soldier being whipped through the City of London ‘for ranting’. There were also groups of Ranters scattered throughout the country. Above all, they abounded in London, where they numbered many thousands. The first Quakers – George Fox (above), James Nayler and their followers – often came into contact with the Ranters. Hostile observers such as Episcopalians or Presbyterians, often deliberately conflated Quakerism with the Ranters; for both alike discarded the outward forms of religion and saw true religion only in the ‘indwelling spirit’ in the individual soul. The Quakers themselves, however, regarded the Ranters as erring souls to be converted. George Fox has a curious passage about his first meeting with Ranters, in prison in Coventry in 1649. He later wrote:

When I came into the jail, where these prisoners were, a great power of darkness struck at me, and I sat still, having my spirit gathered into the love of God. At last these prisoners began to rant, and vapour, and blaspheme, at which my soul was greatly grieved. They said they were God; but that we could not bear such things. … Then seeing they said they were God, I asked them, if they knew whether it would rain tomorrow? They said they could not tell. I told them, God could tell. … After I had reproved them for their blasphemous expressions, I went away; for I perceived they were Ranters.

Amongst the Ranters whom George Fox found in the prison at Coventry was Joseph Salmon who had recently left the Army.  Not long after his encounter with Fox, Salmon put forth a paper or book of recantation; upon which they were set at liberty. From 1650, Salmon was for some years a minister in Kent, preaching frequently in Rochester Cathedral. One of his works was a Ranter tract, Divinity Anatomised, which has been lost, but others, including the Recantation, survive to reveal a very considerable poetic talent. The first time we know of George Fox coming to the notice of authority was earlier in the same year of his Ranter encounter when he was imprisoned at Nottingham. This was, of course, a crucial year in the history of the English Civil Wars, the year in which King Charles was tried by Parliament and executed, and the beginning of the Presbyterian attempt to impose its rigid Calvinist discipline and morality by legislation on the English people, as it had succeeded in Scotland.

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There were radical political movements among the ordinary people, such as the Levellers, led by John Lilburne (pictured below), who later joined the Quaker movement, and the True Levellers, or ‘Diggers’, for whom GerrFenny Drayton

ard Winstanley was chief pamphleteer. The scientific revolution of ideas had not yet spread, but the revolution in religious thought which had produced the Continental Protestant Reformation had led to the establishment of a Commonwealth in Britain which was a place and time of extreme and independent views, bitter controversy, and uncertainty about the nature of religious authority. Many groups of people had been expelled from, or abandoned by, the established Anglican churches, or had withdrawn themselves from them; they were generally known as ‘Seekers’ because they waited for a new revelation of God’s truth. The religious persecutions of the previous century, in particular, the Marian burnings were still strong in the memories of such people, and if they need to be reminded of those sufferings, they had Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to remind them, with its graphic illustrations of the martyrdoms.

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George Fox stood out as a striking and unexpected figure. He was twenty-five, long-haired (unlike the ‘Roundheads’), peasant-featured and astute. He hailed from the village of Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire, in the corner of the East Midlands and East Anglia which formed the stronghold of radical religious independents. There he had been working as an apprentice to a dealer in fleeces and hides and worked as a shepherd. He was semi-literate, most of his later letters being dictated to others. Leaving home at the age of nineteen to become an itinerate seeker, he found no teacher who could assure him of the truth until, in 1647, as he wrote in his Journal, he heard a voice saying to him, There is One, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition. At this time, William Dell and many other ‘Familists’ believed that academic education was no help in understanding the Scriptures. From 1646 onwards books by Henry Niclaes and man other Familist and Antinomian writers were being published. There were also tendencies even among orthodox Puritans which pointed in the same direction. William Erbery, the Welsh Baptist was one of those who wrote of the ‘free grace’ which came through the preaching of Preston and Sibbes. John Preston taught that the ‘elect’ knew by their own experience that the Bible was true and that God was:

 … as he is described in the Scripture such have they found him to be to themselves. …

Richard Sibbes declared that If God be a father, then we are brethren, it is a levelling word. Tobias Crisp held that sin is finished  and that:

If you be freemen in Christ, you may esteem all the curses of the law as no more concerning you than the laws of of England concern Spain. … To be called a libertine is the most glorious title under heaven.

Allegorical writing of this sort was harmless enough in time of social peace, though the ecclesiastical authorities were never happy about it. It became dangerous in the revolutionary atmosphere of the 1640s Kiddermindstewhen some of the lower classes began to take it literally. The doctrines were also harmless in the period following the Restoration when taught by Thomas Traherne. But in between times, the Revolution seemed to stir up infinite possibilities and inflamed the passions of the poor. If the majority in a congregation should excommunicate their pastor, no synod could do anything about it. From this time onwards we get plentiful evidence of the emergence of a whole number of opinions which later became associated with the Ranters. Thomas Edwards reported many sectaries who said Christ died for all and a bricklayer from Hackney who said that Christ was not God, or at least that he was as much God as Christ was. A Rochester man who associated with Baptists said that Jesus Christ was a bastard; so did Jane Stratton of Southwark. Some sectaries held that God his children as well sinning as praying; others held that they cannot sin, but if they sin, Christ sins in them. Other ‘errors’ recorded by Edwards were that God is in our flesh as much as in Christ’s flesh and that all shall be saved at last. A pamphlet of 1648 argued that if a man were strongly moved to sin, after praying repeatedly, he should do it.

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Anthony Pearson reported that many apprentices and young people joined the Ranters in the late 1640s, and Richard Baxter, the Kidderminster pastor claimed that Quakers emptied the churches of Anabaptists and separatists of ‘the young, unsettled’. We think of refusal of ‘hat honour’ and the use of ‘thou’ by Quakers as gestures of social protest, but they also marked a growing refusal of deference from the young to the old, from sons to fathers. Fierce battles were fought in the home, between generations. The preachers of free grace, including William Erbery and William Dell, aimed to liberate men and women simpler and less theologically sophisticated, especially in this time of revolutionary crisis, their teachings were easily pushed over into Antinomianism, a sense of liberation from all bonds and restraints of law and morality. When Thomas Collier told the Army at the end of September 1647 that God as truly manifests Himself in the flesh of all his saints as he did in Christ, he must have known that many of the rank and file listening to him would believe themselves to be saints.

068Again and again, in spiritual autobiographies of the time, we read of men who passed through Presbyterianism, Independency and Anabaptism before ending as Seekers, Ranters or Quakers. Controversies over church government or over baptism split congregations, producing conscientious scruples and endless bickerings. Since they believed that the end of the world was probably near anyway, a resigned withdrawal from sectarian controversies was one solution, a rejection of all sects, and of all organised worship. Such men were called Seekers and included William Walwyn, John Saltmarsh, John Milton (right) and possibly Oliver Cromwell himself.

Radical Independents – The ‘Seekers’:

Many of these men had connections with the radicals and were bitterly disappointed with the failure of the Army to bring about a democratic society in and after 1647. Whatever their disillusionment, the generation of the 1640s was carried along by millenarian enthusiasm. But by the 1650s, Richard Baxter felt that:

When people saw diversity of sects in any place … it greatly hindered their conversion. (Many) would be of no religion at all.

William Erbery was described in 1646 as the champion of the Seekers. He had been ejected from his living in Cardiff in 1638 for refusing to implement Laudian liturgy. He was a convinced supporter of Parliament during the civil war, becoming a chaplain in the New Model Army. As such, Erbery led other ranks in criticism of Presbyterian ministers, tithes and persecution. He preached universal redemption and, according to Edwards, denied the divinity of Christ, as well as declaring that any layman may preach. Erbery modestly saw himself …

… bewildered as a wayfaring man, seeing no way of man on earth, nor beaten path to lead him. Let him look upward and within at once, and a highway, the way is found in Christ in us, God in our flesh. … God comes reigning and riding on an ass, that is revealing himself in the basest of men.

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The Presbyterian ministers sent to investigate the Army said that Erbery was a ‘Socinian’, preaching damnable doctrine and blasphemous errors. He stirred up ‘the multitude of soldiers’, they claimed, against the Presbyterian ministers. In January 1648, Erbery called upon the Army to destroy the power of the King and rectify popular grievances. He objected to the officers’ version of the Agreement of the People because it established a state church and did not extend toleration to the Jews, though he approved of most of it. King and Parliament, he thought, …

… were the two powers who kept the people of the Lord and the people of the land from their expected and promised freedoms. (The Army) had the call of the kingdom, petitioning by several counties and the common cry of all the oppressed in the land (acting) in the immediate power of God … for all saints, yea for all men also. God in the saints shall appear as the saviour of all men. No oppressor shall pass through them any more. The day of God has begun, though the saints have been and are still in confusion. For a few days we cannot bear with the want of kings and rulers, …

The saints drew back when they should have gone forward since the Army was at its best when it acted. Erbery still wanted to see God in the army of saints, wasting all oppressing powers in the land. In July 1652, Erbery wrote urging Oliver Cromwell to relieve the poor, as well as attacking tithes and lawyers’ fees. He advocated steeper taxation of rich citizens, racking landlords … and mighty moneyed men … to form a treasury for the poor. He wrote that the burden of tithes on them in England at that time was greater than under popery or in popish countries. There were no longer any ‘true ministers’ and God, in the last days, would not appear in ministers at all, but in magistrates, both civil and martial. The apostasy of the churches had prevailed for centuries. When kingdoms had first become Christian, he claimed, they had become churches, and national churches began. But then also Antichrist came to be great and Popery, prelacy, presbytery were ‘the three beasts’. The state Church of the Commonwealth in England was no better than the Episcopal Church. It was the last ‘Beast’ or church-state. In the depth of his disillusion, Erbery declared that:

The mystery of Anti-Christ … is manifested in every saint, in every particular church …  The greatest work that God hath to do with you this day, is to make you see you are dead. God is going out and departing from all the preaching of men, that men may give themselves wholly to public acts of love to one another, and to all mankind; therefore all religious forms shall fall, that the power of righteousness may rise and appear in all.

But once in power, the ‘seeming saints’ would inevitably be corrupted. In civil government, they were far superior to their predecessors,

But as for spiritual graces, how soon have they withered in the wisest? Good men in Parliament, when come to power how weak were they? … The people of God turn wicked men, that wicked men may turn to be the people of God. The lords and nobles of old could do better with it (power), because gentlemen born; but when so much money comes into the hands of poor saints, oh how they hold it and hug it and hunger after it, as dogs do after dry bones!

But Erbery managed to avoid the trap of self-righteousness. He gave up the stipend he got from tithes. He wrote that:

The life of the people of God, and mine also, is so unlike Christ that I have often wished … to go away from myself and from my people. … they are mine and I am theirs.

By 1654 he had decided, unlike the Fifth Monarchists, that the people of God should not meddle at all in matters of state since Christ’s kingdom was not of this world. This attitude of resignation after the failure of the Barebones Parliament in December 1653 made John Webster feel he had to defend Erbery against the charge of ‘falling off’ and ‘compliance’.  But to shake off the yoke before the season came was to rebel against the Lord. Erbery seems, in fact, to have been prepared to accept Cromwell as a king and was, according to Webster, rather a presser forward than an apostate, but he seems to have abandoned hope of a political solution in his lifetime:

It may be other generations may see the glory talked to be in the last time, … our children may possess it, but for our parts we have no hopes to enjoy it, or in this life to be raised out of our graves. … all the scattered saints this day do dwell, and I also with them waiting for deliverance.

Erbery was often accused of being ‘a loose person or a Ranter’, of having a ranting spirit; he was also alleged, like the Ranters, to be devious, covering himself by double meanings. Erbery denied the accusation of Ranterism, but not always wholeheartedly. He spoke of the holiness and righteousness in truth flowing from the power of God in us, which by the world hath been nicknamed with Puritanism, and in some now Ranting, though he refused to justify those profane people called Ranters, who blasphemed, cursed, whored, openly rejoicing in their wickedness. He admitted that he was commonly judged by good men as one of those owning this principle and practising their ways, but denied saying that the Ranters were the best saints: his point had been that the self-styled saints were worse than the Ranters, lusting after the wisdom, power, glory and honour of this present world. At least Ranters were honest about it:

These, it may be, lie with a woman once a month, but those men, having their eyes full of adultery, … do lie with twenty women between Paul’s and Westminster.

John Webster, noting that ‘by some weaker spirits’ Erbery’s doctrine concerning the restitution of all things, the liberty of the creation, … the saints’ oneness in Christ with God was misunderstood or led to practices which Erbery regretted. Even in print, Erbery was often very rude and coarsely jocular about what others might regard as sacred subjects. He thought that holy communion should be a full meal, with lots of drink, and was clearly not averse to a pipe of tobacco after prayers. In these practises, of course, he was far from alone, but the fact that he referred to them in print naturally drew comments from his critics. It is clear that he was very much at home in the world of taverns and tobacco in which many of the sects used to meet. William Erbery died in 1654, and his epitaph was not unfittingly written by one of his friends:

Some are dead that seem alive,

But Erbery’s worth shall still survive. 

‘Bridges’ across turbulent waters:

As early as 1641, ‘divines’ were complaining that religion had become the common discourse and table-talk in every tavern and ale-house. One preacher told the House of Commons in July 1646 that ale-houses generally are … the meeting places of malignants and sectaries.  In London, the Ranters met at a victualling house kept by one of their number in the Minories, and at the David and Harp in Moor Lane, in the parish of St Giles, Cripplegate, kept by the husband of Mary Middleton, one of Lawrence Clarkson’s mistresses. According to George Fox, the Ranters had:

some kind of meetings … but they took tobacco and drank ale in their meetings, and were grown light and loose. … (They) sung and whistled and danced.

036John Bunyan (right) thought the Ranters talked too much, one contemporary meaning of the verb ‘to rant’. This may be one reason why the Quakers began their meetings in silence. Yet Fox understood their point. When ‘a forward, bold lad’ offered him a pipe, saying ‘Come, all is ours,’ Fox, who was no smoker, took his pipe and put it to my mouth, and gave it to him again to stop him, lest his rude tongue should say I had not unity with the creation. The last phrase of Fox’s tells us that we should never fail to look for symbolism in what appear the extravagant gestures of seventeenth-century radicals. Ranter advocacy of blasphemy, it has been suggested, was a symbolic expression of freedom from moral restraints. Abiezer Coppe was alleged to have sworn, uninterrupted, for a full hour in the pulpit: a pox of God take all your prayers. 

An obsessive desire to swear had possessed Coppe in early life, but he resisted it for twenty-seven years, before making up for his abstinence. He would rather, he declared, hear a mighty angel (in man) swearing a full-mouthed oath than hear an orthodox minister preach. He made a distinction between swearing ignorantly, i’th dark, and… swearing i’th light, gloriously. Even those on the more mystical and quietist wing of the Ranters were also in the habit of using ‘many desperate oaths’. Bunyan reveals the tensions which lay behind Coppe’s 1646 ‘indulgence’ in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Swearing was an act of defiance, both of God but also of ‘middle-class society’, and of the puritan ethics endemic in it.  As Bunyan remarked, ‘Many think to swear is gentleman-like’ and certainly, many courtiers and members of the aristocracy and gentry classes could get away with it: royalists in the civil wars were known as ‘Dammees’. For the lower orders, however, swearing could prove expensive: one ‘debauched seaman, after being fined at the rate of 6d. for an oath, placed 2s. 6d. on the table in order to have his money’s worth. Lower-order use of oaths was a proclamation of their equality with the greatest, just as Puritan opposition to vain swearing was a criticism of aristocratic and plebian irreligion. But it also expressed a revolt against the imposition of middle-class Puritan mores, interfering with the simple pleasures of the poor for ideological reasons. Bibliolatry led to a phobia about swearing; rejection of the Bible as the sole authority in Christian life made it possible again and with it a release of the repressions which gave the Puritan middle class their moral energy.

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Abiezer Coppe (1619-72) was the most celebrated of the Ranters. He had grown up in Warwick. In his adolescence, he was obsessed by a conviction of his sinfulness. A prey to neurotic anxiety, he kept a daily register of his sins, fasting and imposing vigils and humiliations on himself. In 1636 he went up to Oxford as a ‘poor scholar’, at first a Servitor at All Saints and then as a Postmaster at Merton. By this time his morals were less strict and he would often ‘entertain a wanton Housewife in his Chamber’ overnight. The outbreak of the Civil War interrupted his career at Oxford and he left the University without taking a degree. He was a Presbyterian for some time, like Lawrence Clarkson, and later became an Anabaptist minister. In this capacity, he was very active in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, ‘dipping’ some seven thousand persons, and officiating as a preacher to a garrison. For these activities, he was imprisoned in Coventry in 1646. Other misfortunes were brought upon Coppe by the growing eccentricities in his religious life. He says that his father and mother forsook him and his wife turned from him in loathing, that his reputation was ruined and his house was set on fire. These events, in turn, prepared the way for his conversion to Ranterism, which took place in 1649. Besides adopting the usual pantheism of the Free Spirit, he seems to have adopted Adamitic ways. According to Wood in Athenae Oxonienses:

‘Twas usual with him to preach stark naked many blasphemies and unheard Villanies in the Daytime, and in the Night to drink and lye with a Wenche, that had been also his hearer, stark naked.

It was no doubt for such behaviour that he was imprisoned for fourteen weeks at Warwick. Clarkson recorded that he later belonged to the group of Ranters who called themselves ‘My One Flesh’. Coppe was commonly listed together with Clarkson as a leader of the orgiastic Ranters. Coppe was among the drinking, smoking Ranters who appeared in George Fox’s prison at Charing Cross.  He seems to have been an alcoholic, but above all, he indulged his long-suppressed craving to curse and swear. Richard Baxter asked with horror how it came to pass that, as followers of this man, …

… men and women professing the zealous fear of God, should … be brought to place their Religion in revelling, roaring, drinking, whoring, open full-mouthed swearing ordinarily by the Wounds and Blood of God, and the fearfullest cursing that hath been heard.

Besides his swearing from the pulpit, mentioned above, Coppe swore at the hostess of a tavern so fearsomely that she trembled and quaked for some hours after. Some of his ‘disciples’ were put in the stocks at Stratford-upon-Avon for their swearing. It was as a Ranter in 1649 that Coppe produced his only noteworthy writings, including his two Fiery Flying Rolls which resulted in his arrest in January 1650. He was imprisoned at Coventry for a second time, and then at Newgate. Parliament issued an order that the Rolls, as containing many horrid blasphemies, and damnable and detestable Opinions, be seized by mayors, sheriff and justices of the peace throughout the Commonwealth and burnt by the public hangman. Copies were to be publicly burnt at Westminster and Southwark. The Act of August 1650 was largely directed against Coppe’s works. Finally, the committee of Parliament which examined Clarkson in September 1650 also examined Coppe shortly afterwards. During the interrogation, the prisoner feigned madness, throwing nut-shells and other things about the room. In Newgate, Coppe received many visitors, and by ‘smooth arguments’ converted not a few to Ranterism. In the end, however, the strain of imprisonment began to tell. At the beginning of 1651, he issued from prison a Remonstrance of the sincere and zealous Protestation of Abiezer Croppe against the Blasphemous and Execrable Opinions recited in the Act of Aug. 1650. This was followed five months later by a full recantation, Copps Return to the wayes of Truth… In this Coppe attributed his imprisonment to some strange actions and carriages … some difficult, dark, hard, strange, harsh and almost unheard-of words, and expressions. Of his Ranting, he said:

The terrible, notable day of the Lord stole upon me unawares, like a thiefe in the night. … And the cup of the Lords right hand, was put into mine hand. And it was filled brim full of intoxicating wine, and I drank it off, even the dregs thereof. Whereupon being mad drunk, I so strangely spake, and acted I knew not what. To the amazement of some. To the sore perplexity of others. And to the great grief of others. And till that cup passed from me, I knew not what I spake or did.

Now that his understanding had returned to him, he begged that the Fiery Flying Rolls be thrown into the fire. As a result of this Petition to Parliament and Council of State Coppe was released, after a year and a half in prison. Baxter, who had spoken with Coppe, was certain that he was no madman; and in September he preached a recantation sermon at Burford, and thereafter his life was unadventurous. After the restoration, he practised as a ‘physic’ at Barnes under the name of Dr Higham, through to his death. Coppe’s writings give the impression of eccentricity rather than of any kind of psychotic state. For understanding the religion of the Free Spirit they are of great value. They also throw a good deal of light on the ‘social doctrine’ of the Free Spirit. Coppe affirmed that all things belong, or ought to belong, to the Lord alone, and utterly condemned the institution of private property. The urge to apostolic poverty and public self-abasement, normally regarded as characteristically medieval, can be seen here in the seventeenth-century England. We can also observe in these writings how easily such a rejection of private property can merge with a hatred of the rich, as happened on the Continent in earlier centuries, giving rise to an intransigent and potentially violent form of revolutionary millenarianism.

A. L. Morton, the historian of the Ranters, suggested that migratory craftsmen, freed by the breakdown in the economic system during the Revolution, men who were unattached and prepared to break with tradition, provided much of the support for the movement. We should bear in mind that the mobile itinerant population, evicted cottagers, whether peasants or craftsmen, slowly gravitating to the big towns and there finding themselves outsiders, sometimes forming themselves into religious groups which rapidly became more and more radical. It is very difficult to define what the Ranters believed, as opposed to individuals who were called Ranters. The same is true to a lesser extent of the Levellers or early Quakers, but the Levellers did issue programmatic statements, and the pamphlets of Fox and Nayler can be accepted as authoritative for the Quakers. There was no recognised leader or theoretician of the Ranters, and it is extremely doubtful as to whether there was ever a Ranter organisation. As so often in the history of radical movements, the name came into existence as a term of abuse.

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The Regicide & the Rump:

Following the execution of Charles I at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the Rump Parliament followed up the regicide with acts abolishing the office of the monarch and the House of Lords. It called them acts, not ordinances, because they required no other ascent now but that of the Commons. But behind the Rump stood the army, to whose force it owed its power, and the army might not sustain it for long since its first intention had been to dissolve the parliament rather than purge it. The Rumpers themselves promised, in their act of 17 March that abolished the monarchy, that they would dissolve the ‘Long Parliament’ themselves so soon as may possibly stand with the safety of the people that hath betrusted them.  The army had seemingly committed itself to support a programme of radical reform, embodied in the revised Agreement of the People that it had presented to the Rump, a programme that would have transformed the constitution and regulated the frequency and duration of parliamentary sittings, brought significant alterations to the law of the land and changed the whole relationship between church and state. The army and its supporters hoped and expected that the ‘caretaker’ régime, as they saw it, would soon make way for a reformed and reforming parliament, elected on a far broader franchise than ever in the past.

Through the share they had taken in drafting the new ‘Agreement’, the Levellers had reached the peak of their influence. From the early months of 1649 onwards, there was a burgeoning of various groups even more radical than the Levellers: the Fifth Monarchists, who felt a divine call to set up the exclusive rule of their fellow ‘saints’ in preparation for Christ’s prophesied kingdom on earth; the ‘Diggers’, who called themselves ‘True Levellers’, and preached and practised the community of property; and the ‘Ranters’ who believed that those who had discovered the godhead within them were liberated from all conventional morality. Of these groups, only the Fifth Monarchists had any considerable following in the army, but there was an understandable fear in conservative hearts that with dissolution threatening the ancient constitution, the established church, and the known laws of the land, a dark and revolutionary future lay ahead. No-one could have foreseen that the Rump would go on wielding sovereign authority over England and Wales for four and a quarter years after Charles I’s execution, longer than the whole duration of the first Civil War, and almost as long as Cromwell’s whole rule as Lord Protector.

The Rump’s temper became more conservative over that period, as the mood became more revolutionary outside parliament. The majority of the remaining MPs were deeply unsympathetic, if not intolerant towards the aspirations of Levellers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Ranters and extremist sects of all kinds. Its concessions to religious liberty were to be limited and grudging, its record in social reform miserably meagre, and the professional interests of its influential lawyer-members made it deeply suspicious of any changes in the substance and operation of the law, where reform was overdue. The period from 1649-53 was one in which the Commons, not Cromwell, was in charge of government policy. He was immensely influential, but as Lord General of the Army, he was away from Westminster and on campaign in Scotland and Ireland for much of the period, and when these commitments did allow him to be in the Commons, he by no means got his own way. Even after 1653, when he became Lord Protector, the case of James Nayler, the Quaker leader, three years later, demonstrates the limited power Cromwell had to protect religious liberty.

The Rump was as hesitant in grasping the nettle of religious settlement as it was in placing the Commonwealth on firm constitutional foundations. By the early 1650s, the old dividing line between Presbyterians and Independents was no longer so sharply drawn, since by then many doctrinally orthodox Calvinists persuasions were prepared to put their differences aside in order to resist the rising tide of radical sectarianism and popular heresy, of which the writings of the so-called Ranters were an extreme example. There was a small party of sectarian enthusiasts within the Rump, including the army Colonels Harrison, Rich, Fleetwood and John Jones, who managed to secure the establishment of a Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, with a similar one being established for England’s northern counties. But the majority of MPs were suspicious of religious enthusiasm and did not want to incur greater unpopularity by seeming to encourage it. They were aware of the strong preference in the country at large for retaining a national church with a publicly maintained parochial ministry, and many of them shared it. An established church was already in being when the Rump came to power, with its faith, worship and government defined by the Westminster Assembly and given statutory authority by the unpurged parliament. But parliament was divided on whether to continue implementing the Presbyterian system, and the motion to confirm it was lost on the vote of the Speaker. In practice, a wide variety of worship and church organisation prevailed in the provinces and parishes.

While the Rump shied aware from the contentious business of providing for the propagation of the gospel on a national scale in England, it continued to demonstrate those things that it was against, like sin and blasphemy. Between April and June 1650 it passed acts against non-observance of the sabbath and against swearing and cursing, as well as the notorious one which punished adultery, incest, and fornication with death, even on a first offence. Mercifully, it was very little enforced. A Blasphemy Act followed in August, less savage than the Long Parliament’s Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648 and aimed mainly at the Ranters, though both George Fox and John Bunyan fell foul of its provisions. It was specifically targeted at the Ranters’ denial of the necessity of the civil and moral righteousness among men (which) tended to the dissolution of all human society. It denounced anyone who maintained himself or herself as God, or equal with God; or that acts of adultery, drunkenness, swearing, theft, etc. were not in themselves sinful, or that there is no such thing as sin but as a man or woman judgeth thereof. The penalty for the first offence was six months in jail, banishment for the second and death if the offender refused to depart or returned. However, judges interpreting the Act refused to allow JPs, clergy and juries to extend its provisions to the sincere if unorthodox religious opinions of a ‘Ranter’ like Richard Coppin, or a Quaker like Wiliam Dewsbury.

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Above: Cromwell’s Dissolution of the Rump of the Long Parliament, 1653.

The House took longer to confront the issue of toleration, but in September 1650 it finally repealed the recusancy laws to the extent of repealing the penalties for non-attendance of parish Sunday services, provided that those who absented themselves attended some other form of public worship. Outside the broad national church, the separatist congregations which chose and supported their own pastors enjoyed considerable liberty under Cromwell’s Protectorate, between 1653 and 1658, though it was not unlimited. It did not extend to those whose teachings or actions were considered blasphemous, such as the Unitarian John Biddle or the Quaker James Nayler. Cromwell was reluctant, however, to see these men punished as severely as his parliament desired, and he was more indulgent towards Quakers than most gentry magistrates. But he gave no countenance to those who tried to break up the services conducted by the parish churches in what they called ‘steeple-houses’, and he was even more firmly against so-called Ranters who preached and practised the belief that the spirit had liberated them from the moral code enjoined by Holy Scripture. He was not in favour of ‘toleration’ in the late-modern sense who regards an individual’s religious convictions as an entirely private matter, so long as they do not impinge on the rights or liberties of others. Neither was his ideal a kind of religious pluralism involving a variety of sects, tolerated out of indifference, but a community of all who had ‘the root of the matter’ in them, in a manner transcending differences over outward forms and rites.

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Cromwell’s Commonwealth & its Critics:

On 3 September 1654, Cromwell opened the first real Parliament of his Protectorate. He made a speech on the duty of ‘healing and settling’ in which he contrasted the state of the nation just before the Protectorate was established with what it was at that date. Then, the strife within it had grown so high as to threaten not only ordered government but the very fabric of society, the ranks and orders of men, whereby England hath been known for hundreds of years: a nobleman, a gentleman, a yeoman. This, of course, was an exaggeration, as even more was his allegation that ‘men of Levelling principles’ had been undermining property itself and bidding to make the tenant as liberal a fortune as the landlord. Turning to religion, he said it had been in an even worse condition than the civil state, what with the unchecked preaching of ‘prodigious blasphemies’ and the invocation of so-called faith to justify the breaking of ‘all rules of law and nature’. He referred to the Ranters, although he did not name them as such. Such horrors, he said, had brought to mind the iniquities prophesied for ‘the last times’, for Christ returned to earth in judgement. The power to check them had been undermined by a ‘second sort of men’, who while not justifying such evils denied the civil magistrate any authority to intervene, on the ground that matters of conscience and belief lay outside his sphere.

054Cromwell, pictured on the right on the ‘Dunbar medal’, given to those like the Quaker James Nayler who had fought in the Third Civil War, reaffirmed his own commitment to liberty of conscience but defended the claim of the civil power to a role in promoting true religion and punishing manifest wickedness. He upheld the right of godly and gifted laymen to preach, but he repudiated the sectarian extremists who denounced the whole concept of an ordained ministry as antichristian. He adopted a gentler tone when he went on to condemn  ‘the mistaken notion of the Fifth Monarchy’, acknowledging that many honest, God-fearing men adhered to it.

It was one thing, however, to expect that Jesus Christ will have a time to set up his reign in our hearts, but quite another for men upon their own conviction of God’s presence with them to claim a sole right to rule kingdoms, govern nations, and give laws to people. But he drew a strict line between belief and practice in this regard:

If these were but notions, they were to be let alone. Notions will hurt none but them that have them. But when they come to practices, as to tell us that liberty and property are not the badges of the kingdom of Christ, and to tell us that instead of regulating laws, laws are to be abrogated, indeed subverted, and perhaps would bring in the Judicial law instead of our known laws settled amongst us, – this is worthy of every magistrate’s consideration, especially where every stone is turned to bring confusion.

031Such people, he said, not only threatened anarchy at home but obstructed the work of settlement in Scotland and Ireland and hindered the negotiation of peace with Holland, Portugal and France. The next year, however, Cromwell reaffirmed his message of the need for broad liberty of conscience, and for a charitable attitude within the nation, in a declaration issued on 20 March 1654, at a time of a long drought:

Is brotherly love, and a healing spirit of that force and value amongst us that it ought? … Do we first search for the kingdom of Christ within us,  before we seek one without us?

… Do we not more contend for saints having rule in the world, than over their own hearts? … Do not some of us affirm ourselves to be the only true ministry, and true churches of Christ, and only to have the ordinances in purity, excluding our brethren, though of equal gifts? … Do we remember old puritan, or rather primitive simplicity, self-denial, mercy to the poor, uprightness and justice?

034Of course, this ecumenical concept of religious liberty did not extend to Roman Catholics, although they were no longer persecuted for practising their faith. Most Episcopalians and many Presbyterians, like Richard Baxter (right), still blamed Cromwell for the King’s execution, believing also that the King could have saved his own life if he had agreed to give up the Prayer Book and the Bishops in the Church of England.

Baxter thought, simply enough, that many of the things that Christians quarrelled over could be resolved if they were prepared to give way a little. Although Baxter had become Chaplain to Cromwell’s cavalry after the Battle of Naseby, the two men did not get on well with each other, though they respected one another. Both may have been fonder of talking than of listening. Cromwell sent to Baxter to come to listen to him, speaking for an hour about the great things God had done for England through him. Baxter got tired of listening to him without a turn. When it finally came, he told the Lord Protector that he thought the proper way of governing was by King and Parliament. Although not the only preacher to tell him this (Rhys ‘Arise’ Evans had also told him that he should restore the monarchy under Charles Stuart), Cromwell lost his temper with Baxter and they went on arguing for a further four hours, at the end of which, Baxter reported:

” … I saw that what he learned must be from himself, being more disposed to speak many hours than to hear one and little heeding what another said when he had spoken himself”.

Baxter had liked Cromwell best when he was still his Lord General. He had believed him to be honest and truly religious, but he thought that power had corrupted him as Lord Protector. He himself pointed out, however, that it was very difficult to know what to believe about Cromwell the man, for … no man was better and worse spoken than he, … as men’s interests led their judgements”. On his side, Cromwell thought highly enough of Baxter to wish to talk to him in a bid to gain his approval and blessing, though in this he failed.

Quakers v Ranters:

Quakerism had been the ‘legitimate’ offshoot of the ‘Seekers’, a religious movement which, as we have seen, was powerful long before the time of Fox. The Ranters were like its illegitimate and wayward offspring whose unpleasant label only faintly foreshadowed their practises, as reported by admittedly antagonistic scribes. The Quaker doctrine of the ‘Inner Light’, which formed the core of Fox’s message and had first attracted Nayler to Quakerism, became with the Ranters a belief in their absolute oneness with God. This belief carried with it by implication the assertion of personal infallibility, together with an all-embracing licence. Fox’s judgement of, as many saw them, this pernicious ‘sect’ did not err on the side of charity, and when one of its ‘members’ sought to ingratiate himself with the Quaker leader he repelled him with the exhortation: “Repent thou swine and beast!” He followed this up with a reference to “the old Ranters in Sodom”. Nayler himself, in the early months of his ministry, records their presence at his meetings in no uncertain tones:

Their filthy hearts was plainly manifest to the view of all the people, and the terrour of the lord was upon them all the while they was amongst us, not being long, so that they fled away.

Ranterism, though closely akin to Quakerism in its doctrines, was sharply distinguished by its disregard of authority and lack of moral restraint. Yet since their doctrines were so closely aligned, there was constant merger and migration between one and the other, something which Episcopalian and Presbyterian propagandists were not slow to play up in their literature. Contemporary commentators long tended to lump together the early Quakers with the Ranters. There was an unreasoning hostility of conservative critics, who believed that both Ranter and Quaker ideas must lead to licentiousness and therefore assumed that they did; there was also the likelihood that many early rank-and-file Quakers had in fact not entirely shaken themselves free from Ranter ideas and practices.  We hear of Ranters, as of Fifth Monarchists, after the execution of Charles I and the defeat of the Leveller Uprising at Burford. The latter event no doubt relates to the origins of the two groups, as it does to the emergence of the ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’. As one pamphleteer wrote in 1651, All the world now is in the Ranting humour. A Southwark physician in 1652 defended the Ranters against ‘time-serving saints’ because of their charitable attitude towards the poor. But John Reeve ascribed to them a pretended universal love to the whole creation. At first, he was attracted by their

… imagination of the eternal salvation of all mankind, though they lived and died under the power of all manner of unrighteousness.

In the early fifties, Bunyan found some Ranter books held highly in esteem by several old professors and one of his close companions turned a most devilish Ranter and gave himself up to all manner of filthiness. He denied the existence of God or angels and laughed at exhortations to sobriety. Other persons, formerly strict in religion, were swept away by Ranters: they would condemn Bunyan as legal and dark, pretending that they only had attained to perfection that could do what they would and not sin, a doctrine which Bunyan himself found very seductive, I being but a young man. He was especially tempted to believe that there was no judgement or resurrection, and therefore that sin was no such grievous thing, turning the grace of God into wantonness. Bunyan’s answer to Ranters became the orthodox one: they lacked a conviction of sin. Samuel Fisher, the Baptist, said that they despised the ordinances of Christ and …

… run beyond the bounds of modesty and all good manners. The rabble of the ruder sort of Ranters. … are willingly ignorant, because of the tediousness of that thought to them, that there is any more coming of Christ at all. Some deny the existence of Christ: others claim to be Christ or God.

In 1649, when George Fox first met the Ranters in Coventry jail, they had shocked him by claiming to be God, some of them stating that there is no creator God but that everything comes by nature. Richard Baxter declared that Ranters set up the light of nature under the name of Christ in man. With the spiritual pride of ungrounded novices in religion, they believed that God regards not the actions of the outward man, but of the heart: that to the pure all things were pure, which they took as licensing blasphemy and continuous whoredom. Fortunately, he went on, the ‘horrid villainies’ of this sect speedily extinguished it, but reflected discredit on all other sects. John Holand, a hostile but not unfair witness, said that Ranters called God ‘Reason’, as Gerrard Winstanley had also done. For Ranters, ‘Christ in us’ was far more important than the historical figure who died in Jerusalem, …

… and all the commandments of God, both in the Old and New Testaments, are the fruits of the curse. Since all men are now freed of the curse, they are also free from the commandments; our will is God’s will.

The existence of evil was a subject to which Ranters paid a good deal of attention: simple believers found their arguments difficult to answer, such as the age-old one: If God is omnipotent, why does he permit evil? Others denied that there was any such thing as sin; if there was, it must be part of God’s plan. The day of judgement is either an invented thing … a bugbear to keep men in awe. Lawrence Clarkson believed that, in any case, there was no life after death:

… even as a stream from the ocean was distinct in itself while it was a stream, but when returned to the ocean was therein swallowed and became one with the ocean: so the spirit of man whilst in the body was distinct from God, but when death came it returned to God, and so became one with God, yea God itself.

Clarkson added that he would know nothing after this my being was dissolved. An extreme form of this doctrine attributed to Ranters was that those are most perfect … which do commit the greatest sins with the least remorse. Clarkson came very near to espousing this himself in his writing:

… till I acted that so-called sin I could not predominate over sin. (But now) whatsoever I act is … in relation to … that Eternity in me … So long as the act was in God … it was as holy as God. 

This included, he insisted, those acts by thee called swearing, drunkenness, adultery and theft, etc. Clarkson  (1615-67) was a native of Preston. Brought up in the Church of England, in youth he showed Puritan leanings; he regarded dancing on the Sabbath with particular horror. He became a Presbyterian and then an Independent, an Antinomian in theology. He became a ‘parish priest’ in Norfolk, but then led a wandering life. In 1644, he became an Anabaptist and the following year was imprisoned for ‘dipping’. Up to the end of 1648, he followed another of the major religious tendencies of the time, that of the Seekers. During this period he was an itinerant preacher in Kent before becoming a minister in two more parishes, in Hertfordshire and Lincolnshire. He also began to write religious tracts, but not being a University man, he was very often turned out of employment and was therefore constantly in financial straits. Taking a commission as a chaplain in an Army regiment, he tried to find a parish in London on leaving it in 1649, having been cashiered for blasphemy. He held a living at Pulham for a short time until he was turned out for preaching universal salvation. He then became Baptist and, under Erbery’s influence, a Seeker, preaching for monies in each faith.

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Clarkson developed Familist ideas of Luther’s reformation in his preaching but carried them considerably further. He also began to practice what he preached, escaping from one ‘maid of pretty knowledge, who with my doctrine was affected’ giving his body to other women whilst being ‘careful for moneys for my wife’, travelling the country with Mrs Star, and resisting the opportunity when ‘Dr Paget’s maid stripped herself naked and skipped’ at a Ranters’ meeting. Early in 1650, Clarkson became a Ranter and was soon the notorious leader of the particularly licentious group, ‘My One Flesh’ to which Abiezer Coppe also belonged. He was arrested and examined. As on a previous occasion, he stood on his rights as a ‘freeborn subject’ and refused to answer incriminating questions. On 27 September 1650, the House sentenced him to a month’s imprisonment for his ‘blasphemous’ book, A Single Eye, to be followed by banishment. This latter sentence was never carried out, however, and on his release, he resumed his wandering life before joining the ‘Muggletonians’ in 1658, a sect of extreme ascetics, writing several tracts on their behalf.

Quakers first entered the ‘arena’ of the Commonwealth as a wing of the government party in the years 1651-53, enjoying the protection of the military authorities., and of local gentlemen of radical inclinations. They also had sometimes the more enthusiastic support of the Army rank-and-file. Those who administered the North of England or Wales could not afford to alienate Quaker missionaries, many of whom were ex-New Model Army soldiers. George Fox had been in prison for nearly a year at Derby in 1650, but in the North, as we can see from his own Journal, he enjoyed a good deal of protection in 1651-52. Even hostile JPs, of whom there were many, had to proceed cautiously against him. Persecution began again, spasmodically, from the end of 1652, when the dissolution of the Rump appeared imminent, and again after 1653 when the gentry felt they had been given a free hand. Fox was imprisoned at Carlisle, but then the relatively radical Barebones Parliament met: a letter from it got Fox released and his jailor put in his place in the dungeon. In Wales, JPs also protected Quakers as a lesser evil than ‘papists’ or ‘pagans’. It was the Quakers themselves who alienated the clergy through indiscriminate attacks on the sanctity of ecclesiastical buildings made it for any priest to support them and continue to hold his living.

In 1654, Fox was arrested on suspicion of plotting against the government, but he was well received by Oliver Cromwell. Those who wished ill towards the Quakers were those who resented Army rule; their views were strongly represented in the Parliament of 1656, as was demonstrated from the debates over James Nayler. Dark hints were dropped that the spread of the Quakers had been due to official encouragement, indeed that Quakers were to be found in the government itself.  Major General Philip Skippon, Nayler’s main Army opponent, had been regarded as ‘Parliament’s man in the Army’ in 1647. The rapid expansion of Quakerism both in the Army by 1649 and more broadly in the South and East of England in the early 1650s had made the ‘men of property’ apprehensive of ‘some Levelling design’ underlying the well-organised movement. The fact that Quakers were said to have reclaimed ‘such as neither magistrate nor minister ever speak to’ might seem reassuring after Quaker pacifism was firmly established and known to be accepted by all members of the sect. But that was to come later in the decade, and after the Restoration. In the mid-fifties, it was still far from being the case.

Baptists & Quakers – Bunyan v Fox:

Ranterism was better at destruction than it was at construction. In 1650, it was by listening to the ‘errors’ of Diggers, Levellers and Ranters that Baptist churches in Cromwell’s Huntingdonshire and elsewhere were ‘shaken’ and ‘broken up’. In Cleveland, in 1651 it was meetings that had been ‘shattered’ under Ranter influence that turned to Quakerism. At that time, both Quakers and their critics mainly defined their beliefs by negatives, in terms of what they were against. Unlike many of the Ranters, however, they did not deny the existence of God or a historical Christ, or of heaven and hell. Neither did they believe that all could attain perfection in their earthly life. Most importantly, in terms of social and political attitudes, they did not challenge the authority of parents or magistrates. In the early 1650s, John Bunyan listed Quaker beliefs, which can be summarised as follows:

(1) The Bible is not the Word of God;

(2) Every man in the world has the Spirit of Christ;

(3) The Jesus Christ who was crucified 1600 years ago did not satisfy divine justice for the sins of the people;

(4) Christ’s flesh and blood is within the saints;

(5) There will be no resurrection of the body;

(6) The resurrection has already taken place within good men;

(7) The crucified Jesus did not ascend above the starry heavens and shall not come again on the last day as a man to judge all nations.

In 1654, Fox himself witnessed that Ranters had a pure convincement, but that they had fled the cross and turned the grace of God into wantonness. He emphasised especially drunkenness, swearing, and ‘sporting yourselves in the day-time’. He had a short way with them, because, in his opinion, they bowed and scraped too much and were too complimentary. In his Journal, Fox records many Ranter groups which ultimately became Quaker, in Cleveland, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Sussex and Reading, for example. In the same year, Anthony Pearson said that “some that are joined to the Ranters are pretty people,” but that they “contained so many rude savage apprentices and young people … that nothing but the power of the Lord can chain them.”  But in 1655, the Quaker James Parnell admitted that the Quakers were accused of ‘being one’ with the Ranters:

Some of them have tasted the love of God and grace of God, and have had appearances of God, but they have turned the grace of God into wantonness, and have deceived so many with their alluring speeches. Their lascivious ways bring discredit on the truth of God.

In the same year, a diarist in Cheshire wrote that Quakers also denied the Trinity; … denied the Scriptures to be the Word of God; they said that they had no sin. From this doctrinal perspective, therefore, it is also possible to see how they might have attracted former Ranters, suggesting that contemporary judges and magistrates were correct in their famous assertions that had not the Quakers come, the Ranters had over-run the nation. In part, no doubt, enemies of the Quakers were anxious to discredit them, claiming that Quakerism had become ‘the common sink of them all’, including Anabaptists, Antinomians, Socinians, Familists, Libertines and Ranters. But there does seem to have been genuine doctrinal confusion as well as ideological fluidity between the memberships of the movements and sects. In Dorset and Wiltshire, former Levellers were alleged to have become Ranters. The Quakers seemed to absorb many ex-Levellers, including John Lilburne. His acceptance of Quakerism in 1655 was a very different act for the former revolutionary than if he had been convinced after 1660. As late as August 1655, the Grand Jury of Gloucestershire petitioned against Ranters, Levellers and atheists, under the name of Quakers. Christopher Atkinson was accepted as a Quaker until in 1655 he fell …

… into too much familiarity and conversation with some women kind, especially such as (it seemed) were somewhat inclined to a spirit of Ranterism. He grew loose and … committed lewdness with a servant-maid.

Mary Todd, a London lady who at a meeting pulled up all her clothes above her middle, exposing her nakedness to all in the room was disowned by the Quakers, who claimed she was a Ranter: but the act of disavowal suggests that they felt some measure of responsibility for her. In the 1650s there were ‘Proud Quakers’, who showed clear ranting tendencies. They used profane language, were lax in conduct; some of them were football players and wrestlers. Their leader, Rice Jones of Nottingham, set up an ale-house. After the restoration, John Perrot claimed a direct command from God that hats should be worn during prayer, a significant Ranter practice which James Nayler had also followed during his time in the West Country. But Perrot went on to deny all human arrangements for worship, even meeting at stated times and places. Fox said that Perrot preached the rotten principles of the Old Ranters, and associated him with Nayler, many of whose former partisans supported Perrot. Long after the restoration, Fox was insisting that some people claiming to be Quakers were really Ranters. Richard Baxter, who had no reason to love the ‘Friends’, paid them a deserved compliment when he wrote:

The Quakers were but the Ranters turned from horrid profaneness and blasphemy to a life of extreme austerity.

But the Quakers could hardly have prevented the Ranters from over-running the country unless their doctrines had been, at least initially, near enough to Ranterism to absorb many Ranters. Edward Burrough had straddled this doctrinal gap between Ranters and Quakers. He may originally have had Ranter sympathies; at one time he worked closely with Perrot and retained confidence in him longer than any other Quaker leader. In addition, as John Lampden has commented, by his preaching in London, Nayler had attracted, amongst other more reputable followers, a clique of married women all more or less tainted with Ranterism. They sought to exalt him by depreciating the work of his predecessors and pursued him with that undiscerning worship which was the chief trial and temptation of the popular preacher. Nevertheless, without naming the Ranters, Nayler himself had spoken disapprovingly that:

The greatest profession now set up by many is to make the redemption of Christ a cover for all liscentious and fleshly liberty, and say they are to that end redeemed.

Nayler’s Mission in the West; Trial & Torture by Parliament:

That was in 1656, a year after Nayler took up his work in London and prior to his ministry in the West. From the first, the doctrine of the indwelling of God in the heart of man had been the central focus of Nayler’s preaching. This point – exaggerated and distorted by his followers – was to become the rock on which his life was wrecked. It was this doctrine which had first attracted the London merchant Robert Rich to Quakerism, who had become his most faithful friend and advocate, becoming caught up into the current of Nayler’s tragedy. He seems to have responded to the call to missionary service which was heard by every primitive Friend, and in 1655 he was in prison in Banbury, together with Nayler’s Yorkshire ‘patron’ with whom he had worked in the North, and two women preachers. There is no record of Nayler’s first meeting with Rich but it is clear that, in the early months of Nayler’s ministry in the capital, he had won the merchant’s heart. This was due in part, no doubt, to his extraordinary charm of manner, but chiefly to the stress that Nayler laid on the doctrine of the Inner Light.

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In October 1656, Nayler staged a triumphal entry into Bristol, shown above, which was blatantly modelled on Christ’s acted parable at Jerusalem. He rode an ass, accompanied by two of his many women disciples, while others spread their garments in his path or walked behind him singing “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel. With his long hair, unusual for puritan preachers, he bore a natural resemblance to popular images of Jesus, and he emphasised it by the way he cut and combed his hair and beard. Parliament was outraged; it appointed a committee of no fewer than fifty-five members to examine him and his followers, and they took five weeks before they reported to the House on 5 December. Called to the bar the next day, Nayler protested that as a mere creature he claimed no special glory, but shared the common Quaker conviction that Christ dwells in all believers. He was convinced that he had a revelation from God, commanding him to do what he did as a sign of Christ’s coming. There is no evidence that Robert Rich took any part in their extravagances in the West, and he indignantly repelled the charge of Ranterism which was later brought against him. At the crisis of Nayler’s trial for blasphemy, he determined that whatever might be the errors of the preacher’s followers he himself had offended in nothing save, as he said, …

” … in confessing to Christ in the saints, and my love to that testimony made me willing to stand by him in his sufferings and to bear his cross.” 

Rich took up the unpopular role of Nayler’s champion and flung himself into his defence with the generosity which was the most striking trait of his character. Day by day through that dreary November of 1656, while Parliament debated the guilt of Nayler and the punishment meet for it, Rich, ‘the mad merchant’ as he began to be called, haunted the door of the House with petitions and letters, or lay in wait to make a personal appeal to any member whom he judged to have some tinge of pity in him. He even offered to prove to the Parliament out of Scripture that the prisoner had uttered no blasphemy, nor done anything worthy of death or ‘of bonds’. The House spent nine days in hot debate as to what to do with Nayler since under the 1650 Blasphemy Act he could be given no more than six months’ imprisonment for a first offence, and for the bloodthirsty majority in the Commons that was not enough. He escaped the death penalty by only ninety-six votes to eighty-two, due largely to the support of Cromwell’s supporters on the council of state, like Sir Gilbert Pickering. But the Commons sentenced him to a series of corporal punishments, to be carried out in London and Bristol, to be followed by indefinite solitary confinement and hard labour.

Flogged all the way from Westminster to the City on 18 December, 310 stripes left Nayler so weakened that the next stage of his ‘torture’ had to be postponed. Before it was executed, many petitioners, by no means all Quakers, pleaded for the remission of the rest of the sentence, first (in vain) with parliament and then with Cromwell. He immediately wrote to the Speaker, expressing abhorrence of the ‘crimes’ imputed to Nayler, but asking the House to let him know the grounds and reasons whereupon they have proceeded. This challenge to the constitutionality of its actions, which Whitelocke and others had also expressed, caused both further consternation on all sides in addition to further appeals for mercy, but the Commons voted by two to one to carry out the rest of the sentence, so that Nayler was duly branded on the forehead with the letter ‘B’ and bored through the tongue with a red hot iron. Parliament never replied to Cromwell’s letter, but the episode helped to convince its wiser heads that the constitution needed further amendment. In particular, when anything deserving the label ‘torture’ was inflicted during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, it was by order of parliament, not the executive or the judiciary, as was the case, for example, in the reign of James I. The abolition of both the monarchy and the House of Lords had destroyed the essential separation of powers inherent in the British Constitution.

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A New Constitution & continuing confusion:

The Humble Petition and Advice, as the draft of a new constitution came to be called in 1657, began by asking Cromwell to assume the title of king, though not on a hereditary basis. The most striking proposed change, however, was that parliament was to consist of two houses, with the new one approximating more to a senate than to the hereditary House of Lords, but one which could also operate as a ‘High Court’. Regarding religion, the new constitution was slightly more restrictive than the Instrument of Government which had established the Protectorate, but in practice, this change made little difference. There was to be a confession of faith, agreed between the Protector and parliament, to which clergy who received public maintenance had to conform, but no such document was ever promulgated. For those who dissented from it, toleration was limited to those who accepted the basic doctrine of the trinity and acknowledged both the New and Old Testaments to be the revealed word of God; it was explicitly denied to ‘papists’, prelatists and all ‘blasphemers’ and licentious practitioners, including those who disturbed the public peace. These last exceptions were aimed mainly at Ranters and Quakers, but the authors of the ‘Petition and Advice’ had to steer a course between displeasing intolerant magistrates and offending Cromwell’s breadth of sympathy since their whole enterprise was dependent on his acceptance of their proposals.

Clearly, critics of both sects, even sympathetic ones, continued to conflate both movements on doctrinal grounds, if not on the basis of their demeanour, conduct and practices. Thomas Collier in 1657 asserted that any that know the principles of the Ranters would easily recognise that Quaker doctrines were identical. Both would have…

… no Christ but within; no Scripture to be a rule; no ordinances, no law but their lusts, no heaven nor glory but here, no sin but what men fancied to be so, no condemnation for sin but in the consciences of ignorant ones.

Collier wrote that only Quakers smooth it over with an outward austere carriage before men, but within are full of filthiness, and he gave Nayler as an example of this.

(to be continued…)

Posted March 16, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anabaptism, Anglican Reformation, Anglicanism, Apocalypse, Austerity, baptism, Baptists, Bible, Charity, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Commons, Commonwealth, Coventry, democracy, East Anglia, Egalitarianism, English Civil War(s), eschatology, Gospel of John, History, Home Counties, Jesus Christ, Millenarianism, morality, Mysticism, Narrative, Nationality, New Testament, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Parliament, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reformation, Respectability, Resurrection, Revolution, Scotland, south Wales, The Law, theology, tyranny, Utopianism, Wales, Warfare, West Midlands, Women's History

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The Labour Party and the Left, 1934-39: Case Study I – How Red Were the Valleys anyway?; The Politics of Unemployment, Militancy & Migration.   1 comment

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‘Red Walls’, ‘Heartlands’ & ‘Little Moscows’:

We may well ask, in borrowing and adapting the title of Richard Llewellyn’s famous 1939 novel, whether Britain’s industrial valleys and towns were really quite so ‘red’ as some made them out to be at the time and over the decades since the Thirties. The myth of Maerdy in the Rhondda as a ‘little Moscow’ has remained a potent one, and has been used to justify the political hegemony of Labour in its ‘heartlands’ and, most recently, to explain the victory of the Conservatives beyond the ‘Red Wall’ of the ‘Northern’ constituencies in the 2019 General Election. In Wales, the metaphor of bridges seems more appropriate, since the Bridgend constituency, in the geographical heart of the region and on the edge of the Coalfield below the Llynfi, Garw and Ogmore valleys, was taken by the Tories (the town and the three valleys make up the County Borough of Bridgend). Maerdy became a myth because it was the base of Arthur Horner, Communist and future leader of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. As such, the intransigence of its miners’ lodge, which it shared with other pit villages, was deliberately channelled by the militants in the ‘Fed’ and the NUWM, giving it a longer life as a ‘little Moscow’. Its styles were present wherever there were some everywhere in the valleys. In the face-to-face conflict with the Labour Party nationally enjoined by the Comintern’s Class Against Class policy between 1929 and 1934, the CPGB took over the Rhondda Labour Party, stood Horner as a parliamentary candidate in 1933 and got within three thousand votes of getting him elected. Horner then renewed working with other left-wing organisations ahead of the ‘Popular Front’ policy adopted by the Communist International the following year.

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In the Thirties, as the expansion of the Social Service movement sought to ‘irrigate’ the South Wales Coalfield, it was accused by the ‘Left’ in general and Communists in particular, of becoming a form of ‘dope’ for the unemployed, contributing to the process of ‘demoralisation’ in coalfield communities, rather than alleviating it. Allen Hutt took this view, making no differentiation between the efforts of the churches, the Quakers, the ‘social service ladies and gentlemen and other charity mongers’. Wal Hannington, Communist leader of the NUWM, also argued that those who, by word or deed, divert the unemployed from the struggle against the Government were, whether they knew it or not, leading them into demoralisation rather than rescuing them from it, and in so doing, were acting as instruments of government policy. He pointed out that the word ‘demoralisation’ did not only refer to behaviour involving corrupt practices and indulging in mean and contemptible acts but could also be applied to a person being deprived of courage and self-reliance. Both the government and the movement itself remained extremely sensitive to this accusation which was echoed by Labour MPs and therefore could not be dismissed as the babbling of a militant minority. The 1934 Pilgrim Trust Report had suggested that the ‘generous impulse’ of the Nation had gone far to soften the bitterness of spirit that would brook no palliatives and Wyndham Portal stated that, whilst there was…

… no doubt that men were averse … to associating themselves with a club which was subsidised by Government monies, opposition was ‘gradually dying down’. 

However, while the hostility may have gone, the apathy had not, as his own report revealed that though there were a hundred and fifty unemployed clubs throughout the region, they involved only about twelve per cent of the total unemployed. Portal suggested that there should be a settlement with a warden and his wife carefully vetted to ensure that the ‘right type’ of people were appointed who would operate the occupational centres ‘on appropriate lines’. Firstly, they were to encourage transference by fostering a wider sense of ‘citizenship’, breaking down loyalties to class and locality. Secondly, they were to seek out and develop the right sort of leadership for the communities in which they settled. However, those who knew the valleys better could see the contradictions involved in this strategy. Captain Geoffrey Crawshay, the Honorary Secretary of SWMCSS expressed this concern in the Second Annual Report of the Council:

… Leaders in Churches and Sunday Schools, Trade Union Lodges and Workmen’s Institutes, Unemployed Men’s Clubs and Boys’ Clubs change with every month, while ‘Transference’ skims the cream from our community and leaves it with the same burdens of maintenance and ever-deepening problems of social leadership. … The flower of our young manhood, with all its potentialities for leadership is leaving us in a steady flow. 

Several less ‘official’ surveys confirmed that many of the younger unemployed ‘kept away’ from the centres for a variety of reasons. Apart from the obvious association of them with activities preferred by older men such as boot-repairing and upholstery, it soon became apparent that these institutions were not, as they claimed, run in the best traditions of democratic organisation which were the norm in coalfield society. In his survey conducted for the Carnegie Trust in the Pontypridd area, A. J. Lush found that, out of the ten occupational clubs in the area, only two allowed members ‘a fair measure of responsibility for control and management’ and that many of the organisers were ‘stalwart conservative zealots’, chiefly concerned to provide ‘strong moral leadership’ and often ‘terribly ignorant on the most vital subjects inherent in the work… .’ Their lack of understanding of the needs of the unemployed would lead them to organise programmes of lectures which had little or no relevance to their audience. One unemployed miner remarked to James Hanley that ‘these places’ were run like ‘a kind of honest British Working Men’s Club’. Communists were often excluded because it was feared that they might spread dissent and division:

… the Social Centre is not very keen on having you if you’re a Communist. They’re very worried about us, … and they’ll have to worry a lot more soon, for the whole valley is turning that way as time goes on…

Certainly, what one American sociologist, Eli Ginzberg described as ‘mendacious propaganda’ did contribute to the failure of settlement houses and clubs, which were constantly under attack from the ‘Left’. Percy Watkins, of the NCSS, encountered considerable opposition when he visited Rhydyfelin to suggest the setting up of an occupational club in Taff Vale. Communists regularly referred to settlement houses as ‘dope houses’ where injections were administered to the unemployed so that they might more willingly bear their lot. Referring to the Brynmawr Settlement, Ginzberg noted widespread resentment at the statement that Mr Peter Scott, who had first arrived there with the support and under the direction of the Society of Friends’ Coalfield Distress Committee, had taken this little town under his wing. This had led to a deep distrust, not just of the National Government, but also of the Society of Friends and the Council of Social Service, both of which were perceived as being under government control, so that when the populace learned that the Government was actually giving financial support to the Council, its distrust turned into hostility. Another American Sociologist visiting the coalfield, G. H. Armbruster, found a similar antagonism in the Eastern Valley of Monmouthshire:

Passionately class conscious, the population resents the charitable features of the institutions and their origin from the benevolence or deception of a class that tradition has taught them to hate.  ‘They are here to keep us quiet’ is a common oobservation … Individuals  who had long taken advantage of the facilities offered remarked that they initially had to face the derision of and open antagonism of their fellows. ‘Aye, you’d a thought we were blacklegs’ one man saidwho had largely been responsible for the start of construction of an unemployed men’s clubin his community told me. … The trades unions and the Labour Party also initially fed this opposition.

This antagonism was amplified by the way that the new institutions were seen to be in open competition with the miners’ institutes, despite the latter’s acceptance of financial support from the NCSS. Many older unemployed miners would have nothing to do with new Centres because they saw them as weapons in an ‘underground war’ to destroy the institutes. Some Hanley’s witnesses went into flights of rhetorical language on this issue:

Now a lot of miners don’t like the look of things at present, the way these centres and camps are spreading about. And I ask you – why will they bring these damned centres right on top of our own institutes? Many men think they’re out to break the Miners’ Institutes.

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Even those who attended the clubs shared this scepticism and explained their participation by suggesting that they had every right to whatever ‘crumbs’ they could snatch. Philip Massey, in his survey of Blaina and Nantyglo, concluded that the acceptance of these small benefits did not make people content with their conditions. Indeed, several of the activities started through social service grants were being run by men with firm left-wing views. They had decided that, by the mid-thirties, it was too late to start boycotting the centres and that, though the Social Service movement was ‘a farce’ and ‘a sop’, they should take advantage of the resources available and use them for their own ends. Others, however, continued to feel that the centres were a continual and humiliating reminder of their dependence on this damned charity and that damned charity and that they conditioned the unemployed to accept their worklessness:

… All the Centres have done so far as I can see is to create a lot of jobs for people who don’t really need them. They travel about in cars and ask us how we’re getting on, and we go on mending boots and making tables, and not a thought about work in the air at all.

It is evident from these responses that the majority of the unemployed, both young and old, saw the settlement movement as a further intervention by the State. It was not easy for communities already at the mercy of the means test and transference measures to interpret the actions of these alien social workers in any other way than those of a quasi-official group of officials who had been sent to bring further demoralising pressure to that which they already felt. Referring to the Tonypandy ‘riots’ of 1910, one miner suggested to Hanley that the intention of the government was the same as it had been back then – to break the miners’ spirit. It was this belief that conditioned many of the responses of these communities, families and individuals to unemployment and impoverishment. That is why it is important that one of the major responses ‘from below’, that of voluntary migration, should not be confused with the dominant official response to unemployment, that of ‘Transference’. The migration response has been too readily characterised as one of acquiescence and defeatism rather than one of resistance to, and escape from, the web of state intervention in the coalfield.

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Equally, it has been too easily assumed that the extent of resistance to state intervention from within the coalfield itself can best be measured by reference to the number and nature of demonstrations and the level of political action within its institutions and organisations. However, it is important to see both migration and militancy as complex responses in the context of the wider political and cultural traditions of coalfield communities, rather than simply assuming that the processes of immiseration led automatically either to widespread and uniform demonstrative action or to abject surrender. Given the diverse conditions of unemployment which existed in different communities, it is understandable that the ‘militant’ response should have been more detectable in some communities compared with others. The older coalfield communities which endured higher levels of long-term unemployment throughout the decade from 1929 to 1939 were those with the greatest propensity to direct political action. Although these ‘eruptions’ were the products of latent frustrations and resentment, they were sporadic events which occurred in response to specific grievances in the local operation of government policy and, although dramatic both in their nature and effects, they were rarely part of a broader political strategy. Therefore, the crude causal analysis of contemporary propagandists such as Donovan Brown when they wrote about the 1935 demonstrations against the new UAB scales, need to be treated with considerable scepticism:

There has always been in South Wales a tradition of militant struggle and extreme radicalism. English bourgeois standards have never penetrated deeply into the villages of the Welsh mining valleys. Steadily worsening conditions have replaced the spontaneous native culture of of the days when miners taught their apprentices the perfection of the Welsh metre, with a vigorous political consciousness. The village forms a perfect unit for unit for militant organisation around the pit; there class consciousness has arisen quite naturally, while the coal owners live many miles away in beautiful manors – we are reminded of the Chartist days when the Welsh mining villages constituted enemy territory  … poverty, and the traditional militancy of the Welsh workers, naturally produced a vigorous opposition … Ceaseless activity has also continued among the unemployed … Marches and demonstrations all over the area had previously been taking place … South Wales is ablaze with indignation.

Whilst the broad brushstrokes of this assessment provide a colourful backdrop to a portrait of coalfield society, historians must painstakingly pick out the details for themselves. Otherwise, they will leave us with stereotypical and distorted images of the communities that composed it. Whilst it is clear that the Communists had been active organisers among the unemployed for some years before the 1935 demonstrations, they did not seem to benefit from this in terms of membership and support for their ‘Class Against Class’ policy. Even when they discarded this policy in 1934, and despite Wal Hannington’s well-known efforts with the NUWM, he still failed to attract any substantial support from the voters of Merthyr Tydfil in the by-election of that year.

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However, this evidence of a lack of support for revolutionary socialism should not lead us to the conclusion that ‘the unemployed’ of Merthyr were acquiescent about their condition. In fact, they were far from apathetic, but whilst espousing socialist views, had practical priorities and commitments, like ‘GSW’ (the need to demonstrate to labour exchange officials that they were genuinely seeking work) which would simply not allow time for a marked degree of participation in demonstrations and other forms of political action. Though many had to wait at home for hours waiting for a call to work for three days at their collieries, they were also far from physically or mentally idle, dividing their time between the Miners’ Institutes and their allotments, the latter providing a vital supplementary food supply for their families. J. J. Williams, the local correspondent of the Glamorgan Gazette, commented on the juggling of priorities in the Garw valley:

The new Pantygog Allotments have already become known as ‘the little Moscow’, perhaps as a direct challenge to the old Sunday Market. One member who in debates often talks of ‘taking the gloves off to get down to concrete facts’ never touches the spade unless his hands are gloved.

There were many short-lived ‘little Moscows’, wherever the demands of struggle became so intense that a counter-community became necessary. At the height of the battle against non-unionism, described below, Bedlinog, which Gwyn Williams famously characterised as one of those villages where you need magnets in your boots to stand upright, at one time elected a Communist Chamber of Commerce.

Green or Red? Re-painting the Valleys in the Thirties:

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Graph showing the relationship between average annual unemployment and net out-migration (in black) in given years (July-June).

For Dai Smith pointed out in his book Wales! Wales? (1984), the thirties were ‘laundered’ in the post-war liberal mind to such an extent that their image of ‘passivity and pity’ has obscured the ‘sustaining humour and collective struggle’ that can be found, for example in the autobiographical stories of Gwyn Thomas or in the local newspaper columns of J. J. Williams. For many on the ‘liberal-left’, South Wales became a ‘case-study’. The American sociologist Eli Ginzberg spent some years in the 1930s investigating the social deprivation and institutional response in South Wales for his book, Grass on the Slag Heaps, published in 1942, his title perhaps picking up on the ‘green’ theme from Llewellyn’s novel, published three years earlier. Ginzberg concluded his book with the observation:

It is difficult to help people who will not help themselves, and many of the tragedies that befell the Welsh during the the postwar decades can be traced to their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of their allies, the trade union movement and the Labour party … As early as 1934 Lord Portal called attention to the fact that the leaders of South Wales were noticeably inept, a result of the fact that the most virile and able people had migrated. This kindly interpretation of the ineptitude of Welsh leaders cannot, however, explain … such stupid practices in sending trade union leaders to Parliament as a reward for faithful services to the Federation.

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The preface to Ginzberg’s book was written by Thomas Jones (1870-1955),  the arch-druid of the ‘Cymric’ liberals, who in the 1930s, with increasing success, began to fill the gap left by the collapse of independent working-class education and the decline of the Miners’ Institutes. The ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and its offshoot of ‘Plebs League’ classes in the coalfield could no longer be sustained by the Miners’ Federation, much reduced in wealth and self-confidence. As Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, Jones acted as dispenser-in-chief of aid to the stricken South Wales valleys and Percy Watkins became head of the Welsh section of the NCSS. Between them, they controlled the intersection between social service, educational provision and public guidance. In his memoirs, Watkins wrote of his puzzlement and irritation at the reception given to their attempts to restore ‘standards’ and ‘authority’ in the valleys:

It is a strange thing that these honest efforts of ours to bring cultural opportunities within the reach of the unemployed in the days of their helplessness and hopelessness did not receive the encouragement and support that might have been especially expected from the political side of the Labour movement and from the trade unions. The former preferred to regard the motives of our movement as nothing more than an attempt to provide ‘dope’.

Marching in Step Against the Means Test:

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The ‘dope’ was not intended to smother working-class militancy, which was patchy in any case, or their institutions, despite the rumours to the contrary. Where these were challenged directly, it was by victimisation, company unions, mass unemployment and mass policing. All of these ultimately failed to control the coalfield communities. The reorganisation and recovery of the  SWMF, the continued agitation of the NUWM, and the fact that more national political and public attention was focused on the contrast between the increasingly prosperous areas and the depressed areas within Britain, all meant that by 1934 protest could be better organised and could produce results. Massive demonstrations against the 1934 Unemployment Act took place when the previously abstract idea of ‘popular front’ politics became a living reality in South Wales in January and February of 1935, as hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated within their valleys. The protest marches were directed against new government regulations that would have reduced unemployment assistance in addition to operating the humiliation of the means test.

On Sunday, 3 February, knots of people gathered around banners: local committees of action, churches, chapels, co-operatives, women’s groups, the Salvation Army and the British Legion, Sunday schools, shopkeepers, shop-assistants, teachers, printers, ministers, the miners, the unemployed, women and children, all brought out onto the streets in a collective cry of anger against the continuing injustice of the unemployment allowance rates and the means test. The defiance was that of a whole community. In and about them moved their organisers, Labour and Communist and ILP, the NUWM, political opponents who had denounced each other endlessly in the previous six years. Bands formed up. Lewis Jones, the Communist spokesman for the NUWM, captured the moment in his ‘documentary’ novel, We Live, based on ‘Cwmardy’, based on the Rhondda:

At the bottom of the hill, before turning into the square which led to the rubbish dump, where the other contingents of the Combine were waiting. Len looked back. His eyes glowed with what he saw. The street behind him looked like a flowing river of human beings on which floated innumerable scarlet banners and flags … Although directly in front of the band, he heard running beneath its thrumming wails the deep monotone of countless boots  tramping rhythmically on the hard road … When the front of the demonstration was two miles advanced  and on the summit of the hill to the east of Cwmardy, people were still pouring into the assembling field. Len lifted his head shaply into the air when he fancied he heard the distant strain of music in the direction left of the demonstration. He turned to Mary and the workman next to her. ‘Can you hear anything?’ he asked. They both looked simultaneously past Len and he, seeing their amazement, turned his head to look in the same direction. He drew his breath sharply and his perspiring face went a shade whiter. The mountain which separated Cwmardy from the other valleys looked like a gigantic  ant-hill covered with a mass of black, waving bodies. ‘Good God,’ the man next to Mary whispered, ‘the whole world is on the move …’ 

On that Sunday, the whole population of South Wales seemed to have turned out on to the streets. There were sixty to seventy thousand in the Rhondda marching to Tonypandy; Aneurin Bevan spoke to thousands at Blackwood; Pontypool saw the biggest meeting it had ever had, twenty thousand listening to Ernest Bevin. There were marches and meetings in Neath, Briton Ferry, Merthyr, even in Barry. Down the Aberdare Valley, fifty thousand people marched to Mountain Ash in a procession two and a half miles long through wind and rain. Men and women wore their Sunday best as if at a ‘Gymanfa Ganu’ (Community Song Festival) George Dugger MPor a Sunday School rally, a cry from humanity for humanity, as a local journalist reported, adding the government cannot refuse to listen. Something of the order of 300,000 people marched that day. One person out of seven of the entire population of Wales was out in those valleys. It was the greatest demonstration Wales has ever known, before or since.

The marches were at their strongest and sometimes most violent at the heads of the valleys, especially in Merthyr and the Ebbw Fach Valley, which by this time had learnt to live with long-term unemployment and had come to regard benefit and relief as due by right, rather than as charity. Nowhere was the latent resentment of the effects of state intervention more visibly expressed than in Merthyr, where the UAB offices were ransacked, despite the imprecations of the previously well-respected Quaker, John Dennithorne. They shouted at him, Come down, Old Bug Whiskers! They would listen only to Ceridwen Brown from Aberdare and a local hero everyone knew as Jack Williams, the Communist from Dowlais. The smashing of the UAB offices horrified even the fiery radical, S O Davies, the Labour MP for the borough. His opinions were such that the Communist Party stood little chance of unseating him. On this occasion, however, he denounced the demonstrators as a rabble and was shouted down by Communists and ILP-ers.

Over in Blaina, the demonstrations also blew up into violence. The children of Nantyglo refused to go to school and the shopkeepers shut up shop. Take all necessary measures, their Labour MP George Dugger told them. In the Ebbw Fach Valley, there were seventy in the Communist Social Club and fifty in the Communist Women’s Club; the valley had Communist district and county councillors. The people unleashed a guerilla war against a tough police force and marched on Abertillery singing We’ll make Queen Mary do the washing for the boys! and Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf? at Superintendent Baker. A big demonstration was planned for the offices at Blaina when the after the authorities had refused to listen to the Communist councillor Phil Abrahams. The Brynmawr and Nantyglo contingents met up with the Blaina and Abertillery squads near the Blaina Inn. The police came out of it flailing batons, and there were guerilla battles all over the heads of the valleys. At the ensuing trial, six of the rioters got six months in jail, three Communists in the NUWM got nine months and Phil Abrahams was stripped of his civic rights for ten years. In South Wales as a whole, three hundred thousand were estimated to have come out for demonstrations on three successive weekends. In Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and in the other old centres of Britain’s industrial revolution, the same emotion filled the streets.

The National Government was forced to listen. In the Commons, Oliver Stanley announced a stand-still order on their regulations. They did not come into effect for eighteen months, and then in modified forms. It was in the heads-of-the-valleys communities that the unemployed stood to lose the most through the new regulations. This was the only known occasion in the thirties when popular protest, aligned with parliamentary opposition, led most memorably by Aneurin Bevan, actually stopped the National Government in its tracks. South Wales had been at the forefront, and from that moment, despite the continuing horrors, there was a sudden lift in morale in the coalfield communities. Bevan later commented: Silent pain evokes no response.

Staying Down, Striking Back & Reaching Out:

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Aneurin Bevan had been elected as MP for Ebbw Vale in 1929, finding himself in a Parliament in which thirteen of the fifteen Welsh Labour MPs had had, like him, an official connection with the SWMF, the miners’ ‘Fed’. During 1933-34, Bevan proposed the formation of worker self-defence militias against the small, scattered pockets of fascists who took root in south Wales. An eccentric Communist in Merthyr had a strong following among the most isolated and depressed communities and became something of a local hero to them and there were regular clashes around the town. There was some drilling of the militias around Bevan’s home town of Tredegar, and the Communists also organised their own vigilantes, but all such initiatives were smothered by the Labour Party.

Towards the end of 1935, a series of stay-down strikes erupted in pits where non-unionists and company-unionists were ensconced. These ‘stay-downs’ fired the imagination; they were a weapon of repossession. Hundreds of men remained underground in their pits across all the valleys of South Wales in an act of collective defiance that ultimately ensured the demise of company unionism. It was a desperate, tough fight to unhinge the ‘non-political’ union, regain members, and establish credibility among the unemployed in an industry being driven by utterly intransigent coal-owners. Gwyn Williams (1985) wrote of this:

It is a story of infinite patience, persistence, care, resolution, and where necessary ruthlessness in what had the makings of a civil war. It is a story of remarkable leadership … with the genius of Horner in the van. The ritual was endlessly repeated, the strikes and arguments, the brass bands, marching crowds, women in the lead everywhere, the police charges, the court cases, the pilgrimage of political prisoners, the banners … The process climaxed in those dramatic stay-downs which caught the imagination of a generation, the long, wretched hours underground, the drama at the pit-head, the upcoming to a triumph.

From 1934 onwards the Fed was reorganised with a rank and file executive, unemployed lodges and a more effective structure. It successfully harnessed the community to its purpose and, in its somewhat shrunken industry, it won. This was one essential core around which the popular mobilisation of 1935 formed. But that mobilisation also demonstrated the limits of the Communist initiative. The CP, with its new Daily Worker offering powerful support for a Popular Front, and a dedicated membership approaching three thousand, moved forward, in the words of Gwyn Williams, with its intelligent, learned, hardened, crusading yet earthily practical men and women with all its dependent organisations, only to run into a brick wall of Labour hostility. The reaction of the Labour party nationally put a brake on the shift towards the popular front in Wales. There was a major rally of the social democratic faithful with the chapels, in particular, setting themselves against the threat of atheistic Communism in the valleys. Following the early months of unity against the UAB and the National Government, throughout the rest of 1935, there was a marked hardening of the Labour position in south Wales. At the General Election of 1935, the Communist candidate in the Rhondda fell well back in the poll.

From the summer of 1936, the Communists in the valleys went on to develop their support for the popular front in the context of the outbreak of civil war in Spain between the populist left-wing Republican government and the Fascist supporters and militias of Franco. In all, 174 volunteers from Wales fought with the International Brigade; thirty-three of them died. The majority of them were South Wales miners, 122 of them, with a further thirty-four of them hailing from the coal ports. Nearly all of them were members or supporters of the CP, for whom serving in Spain was as much a badge of honour as having gone to jail for ‘the cause’. Lodges in the ‘Fed’ raised money and goods for the Republicans and took Basque children into sanctuary. Lewis Jones, the writer of We Live, spent his energies on the cause, dropping dead from exhaustion after addressing over thirty street meetings in support of it in the week that Barcelona fell.

A Royal Command or an Indicative Promise?:

In October 1936, the nervousness created by the mass demonstrations and strikes prompted Captain Ellis at the NCSS to warn against the Royal Visit to South Wales, due to take place in November, at the same time as the revised code of regulations for men on transitional benefits was to take effect. Although the two-day visit to the Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and the Monmouthshire Valleys had been planned for some time, on 12 October, Ellis wrote anxiously to Godfrey Thomas at Buckingham Palace:

I feel bound to say first that I think the day is ill-chosen. The new UAB regulations come into force on October 16th. On the whole they tend to affect South Wales more than most places, and it is extremely likely that between the 16th and 19th, which is the first day, there will be a great deal of demonstration against them. It seems to me that if that time is chosen for a visit of the King, the agitators will say that his visit is intended to distract attention from the regulations, and to mark by royal approval what is being done by the Ministry of Labour and other bodies. His visit will then be given a political significance … When Tom Jones saw the announcement of the date in the paper, he asked me to tell you that he felt very strongly that the King should not be taken to South Wales during that week.

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There was some basis in evidence for these apprehensions. In August, the Merthyr Unemployed Lodge of the SWMF had demanded that there should be a one-day strike, a march on London and a ‘monster petition’ of the whole of South Wales in the campaign against the new regulations. Later that month, the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge had decided to support the boycott of the Coronation, due to take place in the New Year. However, refusing to heed even the warnings of Tom Jones, Edward VIII chose to go ahead with the visit, albeit a month later than planned, on 18-19 November and, ironically, it was in Dowlais, during a tour of the derelict steelworks (that once employed nine thousand), that he made his (oft-misquoted) remark, terrible, terrible, something will be done about this. … to find them work. This may well have been an attempt to head off the kind of criticism which Ellis had suggested might accompany the King’s visit, rather than an attempt to embarrass the Cabinet, as some interpreted it. Whatever the case, his visit did indeed acquire a political significance and certainly did not earn him any friends in a government which was already beginning to call for his abdication. Desperately hungry men and women grasped at the words of the monarch but, on the Welsh Labour ‘left’, as the MP for Ebbw Vale, Aneurin Bevan, was furious. It was an outrage, he said, …

… to organise an expedition to Wales as if it were an unknown, barbarous and distant land, much in the same way as you might go to the Congo.

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He said that the King was being used to mask persecution and that Ernest Brown, the Minister of Labour who accompanied him,  was the instrument of that persecution. Brown was an unpopular politician, especially in an area that had seen rioting against the Means Test the year before. To counterbalance him and the Minister of Health, Sir Kingsley Wood, the King commanded that Malcolm Stewart, the Commissioner for the Special Areas, dine with him on his train that evening. Stewart had just resigned in frustration at the government’s failure to back him over the introduction of new industries into the special areas. Chamberlain, in particular, was opposed to these measures. Shortly before his resignation, Stewart had published a damning report on the feebleness of existing measures to tackle unemployment. Even before he stepped off the train, therefore, Edward was ‘walking’ into an area of acute political sensitivity. This was made more acute when, visiting a farming co-operative at Boverton in the Vale of Glamorgan, he remarked to an ex-miner working on the farm who said he would prefer to return to the valleys if there were work available, Yes, it is a great pity that something more can’t be done about it. As the tour continued past disused collieries, through maternity and child welfare clinics, into local housing estates, Edward was asked by everyone he met: tell Whitehall to do something for the valleys. The significance of his visit lay in the feeling that someone of importance actually cared.

From Merthyr Tydfil, the King’s party made its ill-fated detour to the Bessemer Steelworks in Dowlais, shut down six years earlier. Just as the closure of Palmer’s shipyards at Jarrow had blighted that town, its plight just highlighted by its well-publicised ‘Crusade’ to London, so the ending of steelworking in Dowlais had ruined that community. Coal mines could be kept running on ‘short’ time work, with miners working three shifts a week, but once a steelworks closed it very quickly became derelict with all its workers permanently laid off. As a result, in 1936, three-quarters of the town’s population was permanently unemployed. Two thousand came out and streamed along the pavements to greet the King on this unscheduled and highly improvised sojourn, and though many of them were radicals supporting the NUWM, they were intrigued to see him and raised their caps, even if they also raised clenched fists. He stood by the defunct blast furnace surveying the scene of desolation, his face drawn and grave, his bowler hat removed as a sign of respect. As he looked on, some of the men, quite spontaneously, started to sing the solemn but beautiful Welsh hymn, Crygybar. The King visibly moved, turned to those next to him and is reported to have said …

These steelworks brought the men hope. Something will be done to see that they stay here – working.

But it was the four words, ‘something must be done’ echoed around the country. Of course, in grammatical terms, there is an important difference between the use of ‘will’ and ‘must’ in his sentence, or phrase, regardless of the context, but perhaps the most important point is that it is expressed in the ‘passive voice’ so that no ‘person’ is specified as the agent of the promised action. Added to this, ‘will’ is expressed in an ‘indicative mood’ as a ‘promise’ and is not an imperative, or a command. It is not the same as ‘shall’ which, when used in the third person or in the passive is emphatic and fulfils the function of an ‘auxiliary verb’. ‘Must’ is a ‘modal’ verb which expresses an ‘imperative’ mood to refer to an obligation, and an internalised one. However, it could only be expressed as a ‘command’ by using ‘have’, as in ‘has to be done’ or, even stronger, ‘will have to be done’. In any case, ‘something must be done’ was a misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise, of what the King actually said, resulting in an important, if subtle, change in the message he was trying to send out.

These four words, as they appeared in newspaper headlines, became a refrain taken up by those of all political parties who felt that the government had done too little to alleviate the suffering of the poor and unemployed. In fact, in his earlier visit to Boverton, Edward had been careful to avoid appearing to criticise the action already taken by the government and the social movement which, as the patron of the NCSS, he was already well aware of. The King’s words, like the Jarrow March, just ended, gained a significance that transcended the immediacy of the plight to which they referred. His intervention simply reflected the growing consensus that something had to be done to create a more just and fair society by bringing jobs to the ‘Special Areas’. As the King, he was expressing the national mood, and although he had told Baldwin the day before that he was prepared to abdicate rather than give up Mrs Simpson, he was now, buoyed up by the success of his visit, beginning to think that it was part of his destiny to put up a fight both for the people and the woman he loved.

Aneurin Bevan declined an intervention to meet the King at Rhymney the next day, saying that he could not associate himself with a visit which appeared to support the notion that private charity has made, or can ever make a contribution of any value to the solution of the problem of South Wales. But the whole event was turned into another mass demonstration by the coalfield communities visited. The visit to South Wales had demonstrated his immense popularity and ability to empathise with the sufferings of his people. When combined with the politics of long-term unemployment, it made for a heady brew. The King’s opponents became concerned. These escapades should be limited, Ramsay MacDonald commented sternly in his diary, they are an invasion into the field of politics and should be watched constitutionally. Geoffrey Dawson, writing in The Times, called the reported four-word comment of the King, monstrous. He penned a letter in which he dismissed it as a constitutionally dangerous proceeding that would threaten, if continued, to entangle the Throne in politics. The Daily Mail, under the title ‘The King Edward Touch’, praised his visit:

Never has the magic of personal leadership been better shown than by the King’s visit to south Wales. … As few Ministers have done, the Sovereign examined their plight and drew from (the unemployed) the tale of their trouble.

Edward later reflected that his words to the people of Dowlais were the minimum humanitarian response that he could have made to the suffering he had seen. The episode made him all too aware that the modern world had made it almost impossible for a monarch to continue to play the role of the Good King, free to move unhindered among his subjects and speak what is in his mind. His subjects in South Wales certainly did not object to the political tone of his comment. The Royal Archives at Windsor are the repository of thousands of letters addressed to the King during this crucial period, the vast majority of which are positive.  The following sentiments were shared and expressed by many:

You could profess concern and interest and yet stay stay away … but that you do not do, and may God bless you for it.

We like you for the concern you have for the welfare of the poorest and most unfortunate of your subjects. No other King has gone among them as you have done, or shown signs of appreciating their distress in the way you do.

With hindsight, there can be little doubt that the publicity given to the King’s visit and his spontaneous remarks had an important impact in quickening the process of industrial redevelopment. But it took a world war to bring work to South Wales and by then Edward VIII had become the Duke of Windsor and was leading the life of a useless aristocrat in France.

Today We Live: Re-making the Images of the Coalfield.

Rumours that the South Wales Miners were planning a march on London to restore Edward to the throne in 1937 turned out to be just that. These had been heard by David Alexander, who had first gone to South Wales as a Cambridge undergraduate to shoot a miners’ strike, and returned that year to produce a film called Eastern Valley, dealing with the relief work organised by the Quakers at the top of the Monmouthshire Valleys. In this short film, one unemployed miner explains that he was working now not for a boss but for myself and my butties, whilst an ‘old timer’  admits that although mistakes had been made, a new interest in life had been generated by the Quakers.

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The best known Welsh documentary was Today We Live, made in the same year for the NCSS. The Welsh scenes in this film were directed by Ralph Bond and they told a story in which the unemployed miners of Pentre in the Rhondda debate whether or not to co-operate with the voluntary relief agencies. It is obvious that these unemployed miners had been coached: they were told of the gist of what they had to say but put it into their own words. But although, therefore, a dramatised documentary, the difficulty of living on a shilling a day is movingly conveyed and it is not surprising that the film was so well received in the art-houses of London and New York. It was rare to hear the unemployed speak so authentically, but besides the dialogue, the film was also commended for its stunning images of life in the depressed valleys.

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Donald Alexander was Bond’s assistant on the film and his shot of the unemployed searching for waste coal on the slag heaps, no doubt prompted by his earlier experiences in the Coalfield, was destined to become the most famous image of the Depression years in Britain. The sequence was ‘cannibalised’ in many later documentaries. Alexander’s slag-heap shots became an iconic image of proletarian hardship and played some part for British intellectuals as Dorothea Lange’s monochrome still-photographs of the ‘Oakie’ migrants to California. As the Socialist cause strengthened towards the end of the decade, several groups attempted to challenge the commercial cinema by producing independent films and by arranging their release through independent outlets. In particular, the Communist Party attempted to make its own newsreels to accompany screenings of Soviet classic features. However, these were rarely shown in Welsh halls or even outside London and had little impact on the working classes. Also, they were mostly composed of badly-shot silent sequences of marches and demonstrations.

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Pursuing a Millenarianism of the Oppressed:

At the same time as all this was going on, the ‘Left unity’ of the early months of 1935 was wearing thin by the middle of 1936. At the Merthyr Conference against the Means Test held in July, the claim for direct representation by the NUWM was defeated and in the Autumn the Trades Council reject the request from the Communist Party for affiliation. Relations between the Dowlais Unemployed Lodge and the CPGB were not good either, even where the issue of Spanish Aid was concerned. In the Garw Valley, however, the Communist Party seems to have garnered much of its support through the role the party played in rebuilding the SWMF in the second half of the decade. It is significant that the peak to that support came in the year in which those communities began to recover, fairly rapidly, from the Depression. Linked with this, it is apparent that whilst the Party had failed to attract any significant support for J R Campbell, a well-known figure who stood as a candidate for them in the 1931 parliamentary election, the Glamorgan Gazette reported how, in the 1937 Council election, the people of Pontycymmer were prepared to vote for a respected local Communist and miner:

The declaration of the poll in Ogmore and Garw Council elections took place amid scenes of enthusiasm on Monday night, culminating in the singing of the ‘Red Flag’ when Communist candidate for the Pontycymmer ward, Mr James Redmond, miner, was announced as having gained the large total of 899 votes, and topped the poll. Edward John Evans (Soc) Schoolmaster, gained the other seat with 830 votes. Mr Daniel Davies (Soc) who has served upon the Council for eighteen years loses his seat, the number of votes in his favour being 814. Mr Redmond is the first Communist to be elected in the Garw Valley … After the declaration the crowd became most excited, and the election proved to be the most enthusiastic and keenly followed for years. 

Redmond’s election came in the same week that a new wages agreement between the SWMF and the coalowners was signed, giving increases in wages of between 2s.2d. and 10s. per week, and at a time when it looked as if the decade-long struggle against company unionism and non-unionism in the valley had finally secured almost a hundred per cent membership of the Federation. It is probable that these ‘victories’ and Redmond’s association with them, played a major part in his success. As in other parts of the coalfield, the growth in the electoral strength of the Party was not primarily a response to conditions of poverty and did not reflect widespread avowal of revolutionary socialism, but was a recognition of the organisational ability of its local leaders in helping the community to regain much of its self-confidence. However, in institutional terms, it was still excluded, as in Merthyr, from the official organisation of the unemployed. In November 1937, a series of protest meetings against the Means Test was organised by the Garw Valley Unemployed Lodge and the Pontycymmer Labour Party, with the CP excluded from these events.

Despite these activities, evidence of the existence of widespread apathy on political matters, particularly among the young unemployed, is found in the social surveys of other valley communities. For example, A. J. Lush’s Carnegie Trust Survey was based on interviews with five hundred young unemployed men in Cardiff, Newport and Pontypridd. Of these, only three per cent had any affiliation to a political party or organisation and in Pontypridd, apart from one Communist who was inexorably certain of the facts of the class war, there was evidence of vagueness about the election which was taking place at that time. Lush found no evidence of a swing either to the Right or the Left. The achievements of the Communists among the unemployed in South Wales have tended to be exaggerated by their own contemporary literature, the content of which exists in sharp contrast to that of the Social Service Trusts. Thus, although the NUWM existed in Pontypridd, a ‘coalfield town’, it showed no great success in organising the unemployed and was, in fact, quite reluctant to recruit the long-term unemployed to their ‘ranks’. As other organisers had ‘discovered’, the  physical and mental conditions of these men, old and young alike, would often prove a handicap to organisations based on active protest, including long-distance marches:

It has perhaps been assumed too readily by some that because people are unemployed, their natural discontent will express itself in some revolutionary attitude. It cannot be reiterated too often that unemployment is not an ‘active’ state; its keynote is boredom – a continuous sense of boredom. Consequently, unless a sense of subjective urgency can be expressed by objective political activity, politics can mean little … These young men, products of continuous uemployment, are not likely to believe that an active participation by themselves in affairs will permanently affect an order of things that has already, in the most impressionable years of their lives, shown itself to be so powerful and so devastating.

It is clear that, from Lush’s interviews and other interviews with ‘coalfield people’, including those conducted by this researcher, that there was no sustained militant response to the conditions of unemployment and impoverishment which involved significant numbers of people in any of the valley communities during the Thirties. The popular image, transmitted by contemporary propaganda newsreels and photographs of coalfield society continually on the march, is a myth. Demonstrative action was sporadic, localised and uneven and, where it involved large numbers, was motivated by immediate concerns and basic frustrations and resentments. These feelings could just as easily, and regularly did, produce a somewhat cynical withdrawal from political action. The unemployed did not adopt a revolutionary or militant outlook as a means of confronting their condition. Nevertheless, the determination of the SWMF leadership in the battle against its rival, the South Wales Miners’ Industrial Union and against non-unionism; of minority organisations such as the NUWM in its continual agitation, and of the general leadership of the institutional life of the coalfield communities, enabled a partial recovery of working-class life from the mid-thirties onwards. The ‘United Front’ which emerged from this, though precarious and transitory in many communities, enabled the people of the coalfield quite literally to find both their feet and their voices in a massive demonstration of their collective resistance to state intervention in their lives from the early months of 1935 onwards.

When Bevan and his colleagues in the ‘Socialist League’ were expelled from the Labour Party in 1938 for their advocacy of the ‘United Front’, the ‘Fed’ came to his defence. Bevan told a meeting in the Rhondda that the Welsh miners were the most class-conscious, the most advanced, the most democratic section of the working class. By then, the power and limits of the Communist Party had already passed its peak in the years of the Popular Front. Its base was the ‘Fed’ which by 1939 represented some 135,000 miners, sponsoring thirteen MPs and maintaining a presence in most local authorities. Its executive council was more powerful than that of the local Labour Party. Communists were entrenched within it; Arthur Horner became its President in 1936, proving highly effective. They had their own miners’ journal. In a wider social context, they also had a presence through their classes, their subordinate organisations, like the NUWM and their activism. They charged the atmosphere around the Labour movement in south Wales with their internationalism and within their own society, they had become a distinctive subculture, hated by many, admired by many others, tolerated as a dynamic force by most. The great majority in the Coalfield remained loyal to the Labour Party, but despite the isolation of the Communists during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939-41, the surge of pro-Soviet feeling during and after the siege of Stalingrad nearly carried Harry Pollitt to parliamentary victory in 1945. Bill Paynter, its post-war President, later explained the link between Union, politics and society:

The Miners’ Federation Lodges were pillars of the communities because the Miners’ Institutes and Welfare Halls provided places for the social and cultural activity, and their domination of the local Labour Parties decisively influenced local politics. It is not surprising, therefore, that this kind of background produces a loyalty to the Union so strong that the Union is regarded as a substitute for a political organisation.

… It has often been said of me that I was a miner and trade unionist first and a Communist second. … I have to admit that it has a great deal of truth in it. … It was true, too, of Arthur Horner and most leaders who have lived and worked in the mining valleys of South Wales.

Even though many self-styled revolutionaries were directing this ‘fight-back’ and even though the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments were clearly fearful of the potential for serious and widespread disorder, the successes of this leadership were rewards for their dedication as members of mining communities rather than the products of a ‘millenarianism of the oppressed’. In the longer-term, the acceptance of political reality was made palatable by the installation of ‘Labourism’ as an administrative necessity for an unreconstructed economy and society. The objection to the ‘dope’ perceived in the offerings of the ‘charity-mongers’ was partly a residual mistrust of those who elevated ‘citizenship’ above ‘class’. The assumption of the ‘Cymric’ liberal élite was that they could translate the mutuality of these one-class communities into institutional forms ‘better’ served by administering politicians and public servants rather than visionary class warriors. Liberalism shaded into Labourism and the latter became bound by a social and cultural consensus that was addicted to the development of a meritocratic society through education. Neither revolutionary socialism and left-wing social democracy on the one hand nor reactionary nationalism on the other was able to contend politically because they did not see the Depression years as a fall from grace. Those who did were more in tune with popular conceptions and they demonstrated that despite the communal collapse, something could be done. As Dai Smith has put it:

The meaning of the rise and fall of the coalfield society as a collective society was thus undermined from within by a policy of piecemeal accommodation and overlaid by a mythology whose potency derived from its universality as a parable.

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Regaining Consciousness… To migrate or remain?

Research into contemporary qualitative sources reveals that a complex of economic, social, industrial, political and cultural factors determined the extent, nature and direction of the migration ‘streams’. Not least among these factors was the effect of state intervention. Besides political action, resistance to this intervention was expressed by a refusal to participate in government training and transference schemes and a wider rejection of the demoralisation involved in the invasion of the lives of individuals and families by a host of bureaucrats and social workers. Migration was an effective expression of resistance to this form of demoralisation. Thus, while similar factors influenced both transference and voluntary migration, and although contemporary propagandists frequently confused the two, the latter was far from being an acquiescent response to unemployment for many individuals and families. Their choice was partly determined by these factors and partly by the nature of voluntary migration contrasted with the provisions of the Transference Scheme. The sense of the retention of autonomy through migration was well expressed by one of the older unemployed of the Rhondda in a written statement to the Pilgrim Trust:

For an outsider, who views the situation from the angle of the people in the abyss, or the slum worker out of work, the idea he gets of the depressed areas or Special Areas may be totally wrong. … I want to suggest that our people are fully conscious of the economic principles which have brought change to the valleys. The question is, to migrate or remain? I have chosen to remain. …

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Migration thus deserves to be treated as far more than a simple knee-jerk response to economic conditions; it was a class-conscious response for the hundreds of thousands who undertook it. The fact that tens of thousands of Welsh migrants were to be found in Coventry and Oxford in the late 1930s, by which time they formed a significant proportion of the populations of these cities, was not simply due to a series of ‘push’ factors operating upon or from within coalfield society. It is still accepted, of course, that the primary causes of migration between the wars were connected with social and economic conditions. Historians of Wales and British historians on the left have continued to follow what might be called the ‘propagandist’ view of migration, i.e. that people were driven out of the depressed areas by unemployment. For instance, John Stevenson argued that miners left the pit villages in Durham and South Wales for no other reason than that they were desperate to find work. However, the sources show that unemployment was not the sole cause of migration, even if we regard it as the major factor.

Certainly, it is unimaginable that migration would have taken place on the scale which it did, had it not been for the onset of mass unemployment in the coalfield. However, other factors were at work in the period which played a significant part in providing the motivation to relocate. These factors were the general increase in geographical and social mobility; the expansion of new forms transport and communications, including wireless radio; increasing expectations among working-class people in terms of wages, working and living standards, especially better housing; the break-up of the ‘coal complex’, i.e. the acceptance of coal mining as the major means of employment. In addition to these factors, there were many secondary social and cultural factors which played significant roles in the nature, extent and direction of migration, including the decline in health standards in the depressed areas, the role of government and voluntary agencies, the growth of a ‘national’ British culture and the dissolution of the ‘Celtic complex’ concerning Welsh language culture, and the impact of fashion. Thirdly, there were several catalysts, including the decisions of friends and relatives, the attainment of insurable age, victimisation and marital status.

Indeed, given the strength of the practical obstacles to migration which also existed in coalfield society, there needed to be strong compensatory factors at work from within the recipient areas. These obstacles included family loyalties, local patriotism – the sense of belonging to a particular community, region and/ or nationality, house ownership (especially in the older coalfield communities), the sense of loss of skill and trade union traditions as a collier, the loss of the sub-economy of the coalfield. Besides these, there were also obstacles in the recipient communities to overcome; the problems of seasonal unemployment in the ‘new’ industries, homesickness, the shortage and cost of suitable accommodation. Besides, psychological resistance to intervention by state and voluntary agencies and the consequent process of demoralisation was also an obstacle to the success of the official transference scheme. These obstacles were overcome by the careful, autonomous organisation of migration networks which were able to supply information and practical support at every stage of the process.

A National Tragedy?

The cultural gap between the ‘old’ coalfield communities and the ‘new’ industrial centres was not, in any case, as wide as was often portrayed, but it was also bridged by the collective retention of the distinctive traditions and institutions of the coalfield in the recipient areas. These institutional networks were themselves important factors in the genesis of migration as well as in the success of the exodus itself. Yet Welsh historians have tended to follow the ‘nationalist’ perspective in representing the mass migration as a national tragedy. For example, Kenneth O Morgan, writing in 1981 book Rebirth of a Nation: Wales, 1880-1980, wrote of:

A steady drift … of young people … leaving their native land every year, leaving their closely-knit village communities to work in more impersonal … English factories, and to live in anonymous suburban housing estates instead of back-to-back valley terraces with their neighbourliness. Almost as a acutely as for the migrant who crossed the Atlantic to the United States in the previous century, it was a violent uprooting and cultural shock. But it was invariably and necessarily a permanent one, since, as Thomas Jones observed in a famous lecture, “the exiled natives (‘yr alltudion’ of Welsh folklore) never returned”.

Here the elements of alienation, culture shock and permanent displacement are overstated by Morgan, just as they were by many ‘Cymric-liberals’ at the time. He also overstated the importance of the transference policy in the migration to many English towns and cities, as we shall see in the second case study. In this, he is joined by several historians on the left, for whom it suits their purpose to treat ‘Transference’ and ‘Migration’ as synonymous.

(to be continued…)

Sources:

Please see the second part for a full list. Additionally,

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Posted January 22, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Agriculture, American History & Politics, anti-Communist, Austerity, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civilization, clannishness, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Communism, Compromise, Conservative Party, Coventry, democracy, Economics, Edward VIII, Egalitarianism, Ethnicity, Family, First World War, George V, Great War, History, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberalism, Linguistics, Methodism, Migration, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nonconformist Chapels, Paris, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Russia, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Spanish Civil War, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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The British Labour Party & the Left, 1931-1936: The Roads from Coventry to Wigan & Jarrow to London.   1 comment

How comparable is Labour’s defeat of 2019 to that of 1935?

The electoral facts have shown that, at the end of 2019, the Labour Party in Britain suffered its worst defeat since 1935, yet those who led the Party to this are still refusing to accept responsibility for the debacle. They tell us that, had it not been for ‘Brexit’, they would have persuaded the British electorate to back Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘marvellous manifesto’ stuffed full of uncosted radical policies which would have transformed Britain, including widespread nationalisation without compensation, massive tax increases for private companies and entrepreneurs, and trillions of additional expenditure. Watching the daily parade of uncosted spending pledges, I was reminded of the tactics of the Militant-controlled Liverpool Council in the 1980s which followed the Leninist tactic of making impossible ‘transitional demands’ in order to take over the public agenda and sow the seeds of continual chaos. However, as a historian of the inter-war period, I’ve been re-discovering the parallels between Labour’s current crisis and the one it had to claw its way out of from 1931-36 and the ‘devils’ are ‘legion’.

Francis Beckett, a fellow historian of the Labour movement, has just published an article in the ‘New European’ pointing to a curious figure from the left’s past who seems to have inspired the party’s calamitous current state. He argues that the cause of the calamity was not Brexit, nor even the incompetence of Corbyn, McDonnell and the ‘Shadow Cabinet’, but the sectarianism of those who advised Corbyn, principally Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, who are the modern equivalents of one of the strangest figures in Labour movement history, Rajani Palme Dutt. Beckett continues:

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

Dutt was the leading theoretician (that was the word they used) of Britain’s Communist Party, from the 1920s until he died in 1974. In the 1930s Dutt … pioneered a Moscow-inspired policy called ‘Class against Class’ which required communists to reserve their first and most deadly fire for their rivals on the left, who would divert the working class from the true path of socialism. … In the 1980s Murray and Milne ran Straight Left, the monthly journal associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction of the Communist Party. This group was ruthlessly and bitterly sectarian, in the spirit of Class against Class. After the miners’ strike of 1984-5, they reserved their bitterest abuse for anyone on the left who criticised Arthur Scargill (disclosure: I was the target of some of this).

This author had a similar, albeit local, experience to this when, after teaching in a Lancashire comprehensive, I tried to re-join the Labour Party in Coventry in 1986. By then, the ‘Militant Tendency’ and the ‘hard Left’ had taken control of the constituency party my grandparents had helped to found. Even the testimony of the local councillor my grandmother had worked alongside for half a century wasn’t enough to guarantee me entry. Apparently, I was in the wrong teachers’ union, although I discovered later there was no such rule about belonging to a TUC-affiliated union. They had obviously spotted that I might be a threat to their hegemony and weren’t interested in Labour heritage. The following year, two of the Militant/ hard-Left group, David Nellist and John Hughes were elected as two of the three Coventry MPs, but they only survived one term before they were expelled from the party. Though they were replaced by ‘mainstream’ parliamentary candidates, Labour lost its fourth general election in succession in 1992, largely because it still seemed to be rent with divisions, at least until John Smith took charge. I went into self-imposed exile in Hungary, then undergoing its transition to democracy. There I learnt what ‘revolutionary socialism’ had really been about; Hungarians told me that they had really experienced Orwell’s dystopia in real life at exactly the time he had been writing about it in his Hebridean hermitage. Five years later, I returned to Britain just in time to witness a ‘Social-Democratic’ Labour Party finally win power in 1997, holding onto it until 2010 and achieving much in the first twelve of those thirteen years.

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

In order to understand the relationship between Socialism and the recovery of the Labour Party in Britain between the wars, we need to understand the growth of the local parties in municipalities like Coventry and their rise to power in the Thirties. What happened to the constituency parties in Coventry in the 1980s was largely a reaction of the ‘revolutionary socialists’ to the dominance of municipal socialism as the Party’s main creed since the mid-1930s. In some ways, it appears strange that it took Labour until 1937 to gain power in so working-class a city, and this may be the result of the party’s concentration on gaining and sustaining representation in parliament through what was, after all, a coalition of national and regional political groups, unions and societies. At the local level, the ‘shopocracy’ was left to preside over Coventry’s industrial and social revolution long after its social base had ceased to be dominant. The ‘shopocracy’ was an uneasy coalition of different forces, seldom able to achieve united and disciplined action. Yet it succeeded in holding up the Labour advance for decades. Finally, in 1937, Labour gained power almost by default.

In its drive for municipal power, Labour was in a fight not with the big companies that controlled the economic life of the city and its workers, but with a political anachronism that remained in power until it was virtually exhausted. The political expression of the ‘shopocracy’ were the Liberal and Conservative parties. In the late 1920s, they had come together to form a coalition. Of all its councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in the inter-war period, one third were dealers or retailers, mostly shopkeepers. Only just over a fifth were manufacturers, mostly associated with the older-established trades such as watchmaking, silk-weaving and clothing manufacture. A further fifth was from the professions, including lawyers and doctors, alongside builders, publicans and commercial agents. Only a very small number were associated with big engineering companies, including a few senior managers, who did not stay politically active for very long.

Throughout the inter-war years, almost all the figures on comparative expenditure by county boroughs show Coventry lagging behind the majority, in particular on libraries, houses, schools and poor relief. Consequently, Coventry was low on in the list of rates levied per head. This may have encouraged more industrial concerns to move into the city, but the extension of the city and lower than average rates of unemployment allowed a policy of inactivity to survive. With a gradual improvement in the Labour vote in the 1930s, it was clear to the Coalition that its days were numbered unless drastic action was taken. It decided on a new initiative, therefore, and launched the ‘Progressive Party’. There were two reasons for this change; one was to improve organisation, and the other was to draw in support from Coventry industrialists. For years, the Coalition had won elections because of the weakness of the Labour Party rather than because of its own strength. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph complained of the fact that the Labour Party had a central organisation, did political work throughout the year, had developed a policy for the city, whereas the Coalition had done none of this.

In 1935, when the City Council agreed to promote a Parliamentary Bill to extend its powers, Labour saw this as a victory for socialism. The Bill was necessary in order to deal with the new lands that the City had taken over in view of its expansion. It sought to acquire powers to drill water wells, acquire land for roads, set out an airport and parks, and close private slaughterhouses.  It was not controversial and George Hodgkinson, Labour leader on the Council declared at the meeting which agreed to it, We are all socialists now. He made it clear that Labour was supporting the Bill because it was a socialist measure. There were opponents, still wedded to a policy of non-intervention, who were uneasy about the growth in the authority of city departments. Coalition parsimony tended to encourage Labour to overemphasise the collectivist aspect of extending local government services. Certainly, these services had to be planned, and this was the worst charge that Labour could throw at the Coalition, that it had failed to plan municipal enterprises.

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The early failures of the trade unions in the industrial struggle pushed the Coventry Labour Party into seeking its salvation in the municipal strategy. Labour projected itself as the party of ‘planning’ in which municipal enterprise would combine with co-operative ideals to create socialism. Many of Labour’s local leaders were also active in the co-operative movement which embraced the whole city, including the new working-class suburbs. Their vision of socialism – large, generous and undefined, included public ownership which, if properly handled, could provide the key to realising that vision. This was a very different vision of socialist values than that held by many in the trade union movement, expressed through the Trades and Labour Council which had been established a full decade before the Labour Party in the City. It had been founded before the First World War and besides co-ordinating support for major strikes at the local level, it also took up local issues on behalf of the trades unions.

What is of interest in Coventry is that for a number of years the number of people voting Labour greatly outnumbered the number of people joining trade unions. Increasingly, the unions were concerned with money, while Labour was concerned with social justice for all. The irony, of course, was that the decision by Labour to concentrate on municipal politics made it more likely that workplace politics, in turn, would become narrower in focus. From about 1934 onwards, trade union membership began to improve, very slowly at first but speeding-up from 1937.  The vehicle and aircraft industries did well for most of the Thirties, with higher pay for pieceworkers, and this stimulated many craft workers to re-join their unions to try to overtake the pieceworkers. As elsewhere in the country, the trade union revival offered scope for radical politics and the hardening of the divide between workplace politics and municipal politics, which once again made it possible for the Communist Party (CPGB) to spread its influence. It had survived the ‘lean’ years by going through a period of decline and sectarianism, which characterised its role and activities for the remainder of the decade.

But the inter-war period as a whole had seen a shift from socialism based on workshop power in Coventry to socialism as a municipal enterprise. A key factor in this shift was the existence of two distinct ruling groups within the City, the manufacturers and the ‘shopocracy’. The Coalition, with its hands growing increasingly shaky on the economic and social levers of power, and with its narrow-minded neglect of municipal duties, was an obvious target for the Labour Party. This concentration on attacking the Coalition meant that it had comparatively weak links with the trade union movement, and perhaps an over-emphasis on the road to socialism through municipal planning. But the emphasis on ‘planning’ was clearly needed to overcome the financial problems which could follow from the increase in municipal enterprises. Some traditional working-class members of the early Labour Party had a horror of borrowing instilled in them; T. J. Harris, the first Labour Mayor of Coventry could seldom be restrained from preaching against its evils, though his views were not altogether shared by some of his younger party colleagues. Nevertheless, he remained a major influence on the party throughout the inter-war period, as did the values of ‘thrift’. Fear of getting into serious debt remained a great handicap to a Council that needed to spend money. Labour hoped that the modern language of ‘planning’ and ‘intervention’ could get round the problem.

Of course, the danger of a local study, however brief, is that it might lead to an overemphasis on special local conditions and the playing down of national politics. Throughout most of the inter-war years, despite some notable ‘hiccups’, Labour succeeded in establishing itself as a major Parliamentary force, and for a few years, as a party of government. The habit of voting Labour gradually spread among working people and no doubt national developments affected voting patterns in Coventry in a similar way as they did in other parts of the country. Even before Labour came to power in Coventry, George Hodgkinson was urging the Council to look forward to the day when … property would be required by the Corporation for laying out the centre of the city on the lines followed by continental cities. Such planning was not just for a better city in the near future; it was a long-term investment that would yield funds for social spending beyond current horizons.

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Planning for the People:

Coventry had quickly become a city whose economic life was dominated by large factories, and factory life was also important to shaping social and cultural activities in the city. Labour policies had little impact on factory experiences; its appeal was based on the improvement of living conditions, and the standard and the general quality of life rather than on people’s working lives. Working people were beginning to measure this, especially in Coventry, by the extent of their access to leisure activities and facilities. The local Labour approach was to take the political passivity of the working class as a given. Labour developed a socialist programme that meant acting on behalf of working people rather than bringing them into power. Its retreat from the workshops, necessary in order to clearly establish its own identity, left a gulf in working-class politics that the Communist Party sought, in vain, to fill. The Labour Party both nationally and locally was still fully committed to the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. But in 1935 it lacked a strategy for working-class power at a national level. It saw its programme of municipal socialism in Coventry and other corporations as a means of securing a broader victory.

In retrospect, A. J. P. Taylor (1970) saw the Thirties as a period of paradox with politicians attempting to strengthen the weakened and declining remnants of industrial greatness, while the more prosperous part of the population was buying the ‘new’ industrial products. This, he argued, was a good example of a ‘disconnect’ between politicians and the people. Taylor wrote that September 1931 marked ‘the watershed’ of English history between the wars. He defined this by reference to a number of events and longer-term developments. The end of the gold standard on 21 September was the most obvious and immediate of these. Until that point, governments were hoping to restore the unregulated capitalist economy which had existed (or was thought to have existed) before 1914. After that day, they had to face their responsibility to provide conscious direction at least as far as the banks and money markets were concerned. Taylor went on to highlight the key themes of the Thirties compared with the preceding decade:

Planning was the key word of thirties; planned economy, plan for peace, planned families, plan for holidays. The standard was Utopia. …

Politicians strove to revive the depressed areas; the inhabitants left them. Public policy concentrated on the staple industries and on exports. Capital and labour developed new industries which provided goods for the home market. … The individual spent his money on domestic comforts – indeed with the growth of hire-purchase, spent other people’s money also. … the English people were ‘more planned against than planning’. …

The nineteen-thirties have been called the black years, the devil’s decade. It popular image can be expressed in two phrases; mass unemployment and ‘appeasement’. No set of political leaders have been judged so contemptuously since the days of Lord North. … The members of the National Government … would hesitate at nothing to save the country, to save the pound. The result of their courage was that the children of the unemployed had less margarine on their bread. After this resolute decision, ministers dispersed to their warm, comfortable homes and ate substantial meals. Such was ‘equality of sacrifice’. 

Yet, at the same time, as Taylor himself also pointed out, most English people were enjoying a richer lifestyle than any they had previously known: longer holidays, shorter hours and higher real wages. They also had motor cars, radio sets and other electrical appliances (many of them made at the GEC in Coventry). This other aspect of the Thirties, less dramatic than the narrative of the ‘depressed areas’ and the hunger marches, has no place in song and story. But standards of living were actually rising in that black decade. In the Thirties, if you had a job, and particularly one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could seem dismally restricted and archaic. Except for the trough of the economic crisis which, unfortunately for Labour, coincided with their time in government, from October 1929 to September 1931, it was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, the ones which had made Britain’s fortune, which were now derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods rather than iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity.

It was the mass unemployment of ‘the Slump’, more than anything else, which gave the Thirties their distorted image as a ‘long weekend’. Britain’s exports were almost halved between 1929 and 1931 and not only did the depressed industries of the Twenties now have to face, according to Cook and Stevenson (1977) an economic blizzard of unprecedented severity, but the slump also affected every branch of industry and business. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-32, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million people out of work in Great Britain. The National Government’s response was to implement further economy measures, including cuts in unemployment benefit. Financial orthodoxy and economic conservatism remained the dominant features of its strategy to cope with the slump.

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

The mass of the people, middle class and working class, who had fought in the war and still hoped for a ‘Merrie England’, lined up solidly behind the Pageant of History’s living representatives, the Royal family. George V commanded massive popularity. He was gruff, solid and sensible. He made sensible remarks, and his Christmas radio broadcasts in which, after a round-up of voices from all over the Empire, he spoke with great simplicity to his people, made him a father figure. His image was greatly enhanced by the fact that his Hanoverian origins had given him a classless accent. Of a member of MacDonald’s Government with whom he became friendly, he said If I’d had that man’s childhood I should feel exactly as he does. The King’s relations with MacDonald and the other Labour ministers formed an important chapter in his Kingship. According to Churchill, he was determined from the outset to show absolute impartiality to all parties in the Constitution and the workings of Parliamentary Government, irrespective of their creed or doctrine, who could obtain a majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, if the balance were to be swayed at all, it must be on the side of newcomers to power, who needed help and favour by the Crown. Never, Churchill wrote, did he need fear the British Democracy:

He reconciled the new forces of Labour and Socialism to the Constitution and the Monarchy. This enormous process of assimilating and rallying the spokesmen of left-out millions will be intently studied by historians of the future. … the spectacle was seen of the King and Emperor working in the utmost ease and unaffected cordiality with politicians whose theories at any rate seemed to menace all existing institutions, …

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In 1935, George V had been on the throne for twenty-five years and the nation decided to give him a party. The Jubilee celebrations were marked by a genuine warmth of feeling, which came as a surprise to the King himself. When they toured the poorer parts of the capital, the King and Queen received an overwhelmingly affectionate and enthusiastic welcome. He is supposed to have said, I am beginning to think they must like me for myself. In the photo above, vast crowds cheer the procession as it returns to the Palace. The King wrote later that this was the greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life. 

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Below: A Jubilee street party in May 1935. All over Britain, workers decorated their houses and streets, and made the most of the occasion with a spirit that must have dismayed ‘true socialists’. In his speech, the King made reference to the unemployed, saying ‘I grieve to think of the numbers of my people who are without work’.  The Stockport Chamber of Trade recommended a public holiday to mark the Jubilee but left it to the employers to decide whether or not to pay their workers.  As a result, only one mill gave the day off with pay, so that thousands of workers celebrated the Jubilee with a reduced pay packet.

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Below: Earlier in the Jubilee year, Alderman F. Bowler, the leader of the local Labour Party, had led a protest march to the Town Hall (on 6 March) to fight inside the Council against the rate reduction of threepence in the pound, and for more jobs. The Labour group put down a motion urging the Council to ‘respond to the Prince Of Wales’ appeal to employers to engage an extra one per cent of men on permanent employment’. The photograph shows protesting men forming a cordon around the Town Hall. 

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Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

Besides producing a different kind of factory worker, the new industries greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers and small tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper-middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning aristocracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government and stability. In the event, they were joined by at least half the old working classes who were in such dire straits, and this was a straight vote for tradition: ‘in the crisis’ they thought, as was often the case with British workers, that we shall be saved, if at all, by those who are used to ruling and governing according to well-tried formulae which in the past have put us on top. That was the reason for the huge parliamentary majorities for MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. René Cutforth summed up the British attitude as follows:

Put lucidly the proposition before the British nation in the 1930s would run something like this:

“In the last war nearly a million British men, in the younger half of the population, laid down their lives for King and Country/ Civilisation/ Freedom. Take your pick. Since we are not at this moment, as we sometimes feared we would be, a bankrupt German province, it can be said that their sacrifice saved us. We are now in the position of having to be saved again. It seems that the sacrifice required this time is that a further one and a half million, the permanently unemployed, lay down their lives, not abruptly and in violence like the soldiers: they will not even have to stop breathing, but ‘lives’ in the sense in which we want to preserve them in these islands, they cannot have. If this is what has to be, amen.”

Put like that, I don’t believe the proposition would have won a single vote, but in fact that is the way we voted and that is what happened. 

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At the beginning of October 1935, Harold Nicolson, career diplomat and diarist, was offered a ‘safe’ seat in the National Labour interest at Leicester West in the November General Election. He jumped at the offer since he had been regarded as ‘damaged goods’ since his ill-starred flirtations with Beaverbrook and Mosley earlier in the decade. He was certainly not a socialist in any meaningful sense of the word, admitting himself that such socialism as he owned was ‘purely cerebral’ and that he did ‘not like the masses in the flesh’. So of course, Real Labour was out of the question, and Nicolson really saw himself as an Asquithian Liberal, but they were now extinct as a parliamentary organism. He had, therefore, wandered aimlessly along the political spectrum, from the New Party to National Labour, stopping off along the way to check out the Conservatives or the Liberals, without ever ideologically coming to rest at any one particular point. In his attempt to identify this point in public, he wrote a pamphlet for National Labour which took the form of an imaginary conversation between himself and a fellow passenger on a train journey between London and Leicester, published as Politics in the Train. He told his sceptical companion that how much he disliked sectional parties and bureaucrats, those that place their own interests or theories above the interests of the country as a whole. 

Although he favoured the concept of an organic state, he did not believe in rendering Britain a totalitarian State; in fact, he abhorred all forms of ‘isms’ and ‘dictatorships’. National Labour, he argued, represented ‘the future point of view’: it would base its policy on ‘Internal Reorganisation’ and ‘External Peace’. He believed in National Labour because he believed ‘in reality’ and Labour because he believed ‘in idealism’. He sympathised completely with the plight of the poor and thought of himself as belonging to a ‘progressive left-wing’. Although he considered Eton ‘the most perfect education system in all the world’, he deplored the class system in education and the division between public and council schools. Favouring equal education for all, he wanted people of any class to enjoy the privileges of the capitalist class, aiming at bringing Eton to the masses. These views were perhaps not so far removed from those emerging from George Orwell’s pen. But when Nicolson was writing in his diaries, he stated that while he had ‘always been on the side of the underdog’, he had also always believed in the hereditary principle. Once he sensed that his aristocratic values were under threat, he revealed his true colours.

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But, knowing little of domestic politics and having nothing in common with the middle-class and working-class voters he sought to win over, he flinched from the cut and thrust of electioneering. The hustings held no appeal for him, especially when having to face working men and women lowing in disgust and hatred. He wrote in his diary after a campaign meeting in the constituency that he loathed every moment of the Election. His mood was not improved by the Liberals deciding at the last moment to enter a candidate, making it a much closer-run race.  When voting took place on 14 November, the contest could not have been more tightly fought.  After a recount, Nicolson sneaked in with a majority of just eighty-seven, much to the delight of his supporters. As he told his wife Vita later, I put all my philosophy of life into that Election. Yet it was a philosophy expressed by an Asquithian Liberal disguised as a National Labourite, propping up a National  Government controlled by the Conservatives led by Baldwin with the rump of National Labour trailing behind, led by an ailing Ramsay MacDonald, its eight members swallowed up in another huge Tory majority. MacDonald offered him a job as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, but he refused, explaining to Vita that:

… I fear that Ramsay is a vain and slightly vindictive old man … somewhat like King Charles I addressing the Cavaliers from the Whitehall scaffold. ‘You eight people … are at the seed-bed of seminal ideas. The young Tories are on your side. Work hard; think hard; and you will create a classless England.’ 

MacDonald also championed the idea of a ‘Tory Socialism’ which  Harold Nicolson must have considered to be almost as absurd as the notion of ‘a classless England’. It was fortunate for him that foreign affairs came to dominate the new Parliament as well as public opinion. On these matters, he was able to speak with authority and from experience not given to many MPs. His first opportunity to do so came sooner than he planned. On 19 December 1935, he rose from the backbenches to deliver his maiden speech at a dramatic moment, just after the Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, had resigned over his role in the Hoare-Laval Pact which was designed to end the Ethiopian war which had been raging since October. The war in Abyssinia had already cost the Labour opposition its leader.

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Despite the overwhelming victory of the ‘National Government’ at the General Election of November 1935, though now essentially a Conservative one, the recovery of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee’s leadership was evident in it gaining 154 seats, making it the major party of opposition to the Tories. George Lansbury, a committed pacifist, had resigned as the Leader of the Labour Party at the 1935 Party Conference on 8 October, after delegates voted in favour of sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury had strongly opposed the policy and felt unable to continue leading the party. Taking advantage of the disarray in the Labour Party, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had replaced MacDonald as PM in June of that year, announced on 19 October that a general election would be held on 14 November. With no time for a leadership contest, the party agreed that Attlee, as Deputy, should serve as interim leader, on the understanding that a leadership election would be held after the general election. Attlee, therefore, led Labour through the 1935 election, which saw the party stage a partial comeback from its disastrous 1931 performance, winning 38 per cent of the vote, the highest share Labour had won up to that point. Although numerically the result can be compared with the result of the 2019 Election, that is where the similarity ends. In historical terms, Labour was back on the road to its 1945 victory. Contemporaries also saw the result as a harbinger of things to come for Labour, as the letter written by the Liberal Marquess of Lothian to Lloyd George shortly after the election shows:

The Labour Party … is the party of the future; it proclaims that Socialism is the central issue of the century as democracy was of the last, and individual rights of earlier times, and has a vague, and largely unpractical programme of reform; it has behind it the interests of the Trade Unions and the co-operative movement reinforced by a steadily growing body of young intellectual Socialists. … The practical choice is between letting the Liberal Party die and encouraging liberally-minded people to join the other two parties in order to liberalise them and compel them both to be faithful to essential liberal tradition.

The Liberals won only twenty-one seats, losing eleven seats to Labour and four to the Tories. In fact, though, both the (by then) main parties benefited from the Liberal decline and, given the Conservative dominance after 1931, it was perhaps the Right rather than the Left which gained most in the long-term. More importantly, perhaps, the 1935 Election set the pattern for the post-war political system as a two-party rather than a multi-party democracy, especially in terms of governments.

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

Attlee (pictured above in 1935) stood in the subsequent leadership election, held soon after, in which he was opposed by Herbert Morrison, who had just re-entered parliament in the recent election, and Arthur Greenwood: Morrison was seen as the favourite, but was distrusted by many sections of the party, especially the left-wing. Arthur Greenwood meanwhile was a popular figure in the party. Attlee was able to come across as a competent and unifying figure, particularly having already led the party through a general election. He went on to come first in both the first and second ballots, formally being elected Leader of the Labour Party on 3 December 1935. Writing in 1954, S. Haffner was clear about the significance of his two victories in Attlee’s career:

... As a statesman, Attlee’s formative period undoubtedly began in 1935. His party had been crushed at the 1931 election after the MacDonald ‘betrayal’; and Lansbury had proved quite ineffective as a parliamentary leader. So Attlee – one of the few Labour candidates to have survived the landslide – was told to act as leader until after the next election.

The Labour Party was in an almost hopeless mess – utterly defeated, and divided into quarrelling factions. Attlee, loyal, modest, impartial, clear-headed, capable of decision, and with the courage of his personal detachment, had precisely the qualities needed. In reuniting his broken party he added to those qualities a volume of experience in political management – so that he has quietly led the party ever since. It was at this time that the loyal Attlee learned to stomach disloyal colleagues. …

In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote that no-one could underestimate the strength of Attlee’s leadership. His contemporaries had tended to write him down as an amiable little man, but the Conservative peer regarded him as a shrewd, reasonable, and practical man … closer to the aspirations and difficulties of ordinary people than contemporary political leaders.

At five minutes to midnight on 20 January 1936, King George died at Sandringham in Norfolk. The public had been well prepared for the death of the King and a few hours earlier the BBC’s chief announcer had told the country; The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close. He was sincerely mourned as the representative of tradition, stability and ‘the good old days’. At the end of January, vast crowds once more stood on the streets of London, some having waited all night to watch the King’s funeral procession.

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The new King, Edward VIII had a very different image from his father’s and already, as Prince of Wales, he had become something of a hero among the unemployed in his role as patron of the National Council of Social Service. Having already toured the depressed areas in 1928, he had already irritated Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet, who at the beginning of 1936 were now in charge of the National Government. Later in the year, on touring the South Wales Coalfield once more, now as monarch, he had been heard to utter Dreadful! Something will be done about this! which was misreported as Something must be done! The first phrase might have been regarded as a promise of a re-doubling of efforts by charitable agencies, but the Government took umbrage at a time when Baldwin and the King were already protagonists in the abdication crisis. With that one misreported utterance, his reputation among ministers as ‘irresponsible’ was sealed together with his fate as King. Little wonder then that there were rumours of a march to London of South Wales miners to restore him as King, following his forced abdication.

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The Radical Writers on the Left:

Another growing class in the Thirties was ‘a strange and disorderly mob’ according to René Cutforth. The Left referred to it as the ‘intelligentsia’, made up of intellectuals and artists and included a fair number of the rich and fashionable and their ‘hangers-on’. Cutforth commented that in the Thirties this layer of the population went violently Red almost overnight. This new mood was born at Oxford University and led by its young poets, Wyston Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and, a little later, Louis MacNeice. They were called the ‘Auden Group’ but all they had in common was a frame of mind – outrage at the plight of the poor and the ‘smugness’ of the rest. They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the most characteristic intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. What they were after was a Bolshevik-style revolution. It was to arrive with ‘the death of the Old Gang, the death of us’. Auden always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, the audience was so small that it often seemed that these poets were writing for each other.

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It was just possible in the early Thirties to believe that social justice was flowering in the Soviet Union and that mankind was on its way to the millennium via Moscow, but even then only to addicts of Communist belief who were the Thirties’ most characteristic academic product. For these, the Soviet Union was the sacred cow, and any word of criticism of it was no mere disagreement or even heresy, but rank blasphemy. Most of the intellectuals on the Left were far too ‘committed’ to bother to get the facts right, and later plenty of them dismissed Stalin’s terror brightly as ‘necessary for the creation of the new order’. The Thirties was the great age of illusion in which intellectuals could believe anything they wanted, regardless of the available evidence to the contrary, and frequently did.

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The Marxists expected the Revolution ‘any week now’. Capitalism was supposed to be on its last legs, to have at most a few tottering years to run. One good push would topple it over, and then the road to socialism would be found out of the ensuing chaos and catastrophe. C. Day Lewis wrote:

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

In many ways, he was speaking for his time. The idea of the ‘necessary chaos’ was the notion underlying all the art of the Thirties. The revolution was seen by Auden as making the artist’s private sensibility an irrelevance; the revolutionary poet should remain absolutely detached, like a surgeon or a scientist. He believed, therefore, that poetry should reflect this by being classical and austere:

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

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The last line of Auden’s poem might well have been an apt motto of his whole ‘group’. Throughout the decade, however, George Orwell maintained a critical view of the group in particular and the orthodox Soviet-worshippers in general, whom he regarded as divorced from humanity: they had never met anyone outside their own social class, he said, annoying them greatly because they knew he was right. Even if they were intellectually exciting and were genuine poets, they were most genuine when least political, and their political achievements were very limited. Far more effective politically was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, established in May 1936 with forty thousand readers who each received a book a month, chosen by Gollancz and two other Marxist intellectuals, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps, to revitalise and educate the ‘British Left’. It was not necessary to be either a Marxist or even a Socialist to be on ‘the Left’ in the Thirties. There was also a large, somewhat vague area of opinion which called itself ‘anti-fascist’, and it was to those of this opinion that the Left Book Club addressed itself. The use of the word ‘Left’ was known from the nineteenth century due to the adversarial nature of parliamentary seating according to the Speaker’s position in the Commons, but it was not ‘common’ as a general description before the 1920s. The Left Book Club helped to make it a synonym for ‘Socialist’ since it became a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and the 1940s, with over sixty thousand readers. According to Cutforth, the Left Book Club exerted a strong influence on the mind of the decade.

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‘The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales’, London: Gollancz, 1939.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by its best-known book, written in 1936 and published the following year, written by the most influential author of the Thirties and Forties, if not the century. Three days after the King’s funeral at the end of January 1936, George Orwell left London by train on the beginning of a journey of journalism, investigation and self-discovery. Victor Gollancz had commissioned him to write a book on Britain’s ravaged industrial north, and for this purpose, Orwell wanted to see the effects of unemployment and experience the British working class ‘at close quarters’. At that time, he was a contributor to the left-wing literary journal, The Adelphi. George Orwell was the first writer to travel to the north to report on the horrors of poverty and deprivation to be found there. J. B. Priestley had already journeyed around Britain in the Autumn of 1933, and his best-seller, English Journey, had drawn attention to the awful conditions to towns in the Midlands and the North. Priestley, the bestselling novelist and playwright, used his journalistic skills to write a travelogue about his ‘sojourns’ in various towns and cities in the previous year. It seems to describe England in accurate, realistic terms, contrasted with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier of a year later, which was written with the main aim of filling the English middle classes with guilt and so exaggerated some of the evidence gathered to gain that effect. The spectre of Bolshevism which he also used to great effect, later became one of the facets of the mythology of the Thirties, and Priestley provided a useful corrective to a view which, as Orwell later admitted, emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British society. Orwell’s view was as bleakly pessimistic as it could be; Priestley was ever the optimist.

013There was also a growing sense, felt especially keenly on the left, that while much was known about the British Empire, the experience of the working classes at home had been hidden for too long. To put this right a number of groundbreaking novels were published on the subject, one or two of them written by working-class authors. The most successful of these was Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a moving account of an unemployed family in Salford, where the author grew up. It was a best-seller, later made into a play (in which this author played a leading role in the early eighties) and a film. Left-wing film-makers, led by the pioneering producer John Grierson, were using the new medium of the documentary film in the hope of creating a new perspective on a Britain, in which at least two nations existed in parallel realities.

At the beginning of 1936, Britain was still a class-bound and divided nation, split between a rapidly modernising and growing ‘south’ and the impoverished peripheral regions of south Wales, northern England and central Scotland.  For Priestley, the ‘two nations’ view of the Thirties was greatly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than general as the Thirties progressed. Equally, in parts of the Midlands, there were ‘blackspots’ of high unemployment among the generally prosperous  ‘new industry towns’ as Orwell had also noted in his diary on his journey, partly on foot, through the Midlands from Coventry to Birmingham to Cheshire before taking the train to Manchester. Priestley wrote of how he had seen England:

I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass. There was first, Old England, the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire, guidebook and quaint highways and byways England … But we all know this England, which at best cannot be improved upon in the world. …

Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, … This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it. To the more fortunate people it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable. …

The third England, I concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this island. … This is theEngland of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibiting buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés,  … You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol. … In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress. … Most of the work  … is rapidly becoming standardised in this new England, and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. …

Here then were the three Englands I had seen, the Old, the Nineteenth-Century and the New; and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country I had visited. …. 

North of Manchester:

George Orwell was just one of a host of journalists, economists, sociologists, medical experts and nutritionists who produced reports in 1936 that were to be seminal in the envisioning and formation of the welfare state in the next decade. But Orwell was different. He scorned journalist such as Priestley for their ‘middle-class writing’. He didn’t wish to study the poor and then go off to a comfortable hotel to rest and recuperate. He wanted to plunge into people’s lives, albeit briefly, and experience working-class life at first hand. In his desire to immerse himself in poverty and discomfort an urge for self-punishment and a degree of voyeurism, a tradition in English literature of slum-visiting that went back to Mayhew and Dickens. Orwell had first become familiar with the world of poverty (of a different kind) by becoming a tramp in order to describe this world in Down and Out in Paris and London. Denys Blakeway has recently written of the impact on him of his journey north:

Orwell, the former Imperial policeman who had served in Burma, had never been to the North of England before; he had never seen the smoking chimneys and satanic mills of the industrial areas that had given rise to to Britain’s wealth and that were home to its worst oppression. Like a latter-day Engels, he experienced an epiphany, as what he saw changed him from a sceptical liberal into an unorthodox but nevertheless committed socialist, ready later in the year to fight for the cause in Spain.   

Arriving in Manchester, Orwell was put in touch with Jerry Kennan, an activist and unemployed coal miner in Wigan who took him to the town’s market square, where every weekend a series of political meetings took place. These were attempts, mostly unsuccessful, to engage workers in radical action, much of which took place outside of the sterile world of the coalition government in Westminster. According to Kennan, that Saturday afternoon there were several meetings going on in the square, held by the ILP, the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and various religious bodies. The NUWM was much mistrusted by the authorities as a Communist front, but by the jobless, it was widely regarded as the most effective organisation working on their behalf. It had been responsible for many hunger marches and protests against the Means Test that had helped to raise awareness of the suffering of unemployment through the years of depression. Kennan and his guest headed for the NUWM shelter, a dreadful, ramshackle place, he wrote, although he acknowledged that it was warm and welcoming. When the men there learned about his mission, they immediately offered help with finding information and, more importantly, lodgings. To his discomfort, however, his southern origins and background could not be hidden, and the men insisted on calling him ‘Sir’. In 1936, his class could not be easily disguised, and Orwell’s public school accent would have been unmistakable, however scruffy he may have appeared after days and nights spent on the road to Wigan.

On the first evening in Wigan, Orwell went as a guest of the NUWM to Wigan’s Co-operative Hall to hear Wal Hannington, a veteran activist, one of Gollancz’s authors, and the leader of the Movement. He was also one of the founding members of the CPGB, which made him an object of state suspicion and police surveillance. Stanley Baldwin saw activists such as Hannington as real dangers to the security of the realm. The CPGB and the NUWM had been behind numerous strikes, sit-ins and hunger marches during the previous five years, and within the establishment, there was genuine fear of revolution. Orwell dismissed Hannington as a ‘poor speaker’ who used all ‘the padding and clichés of the socialist orator’, but was impressed by the audience’s response and ‘surprised by the amount of Communist feeling’. At the time, the CPGB had only 11,500 members in Britain compared with the 400,000 members of the Labour Party, but its popularity and influence extended far beyond its membership. When Hannington told his audience that, in a war between Britain and the USSR, the latter would win, he was greeted with ‘loud cheers’. The Soviet Union under Stalin was revered by many, from founding members of the Labour Party, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation; like H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw; like the young Oxbridge intellectuals mentioned above and like the ‘working-class radicals’. such as B L Coombes (see his book cover above).

George Bernard Shaw, the other ‘ancient’, was still writing, though he had nothing much to contribute in the Thirties. He enjoyed showing off in the newspapers and, together with Wells, both of them committed socialists, made a trip to Moscow and came back with a rose-tinted view of Soviet life. Bertrand Russell meanwhile, committed to the pursuit of the truth, also went to the Soviet capital and reported that Stalin was indeed a cruel man and that life in Russia was indeed Red but far from rosy. But most intellectuals were still more influenced by ‘Victorian’ liberal writers, like W. B. Yeats, one of whose verses from ‘The Second Coming’ seemed to fit the times and was always being quoted:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

As 1936 progressed, the call for action for Priestley’s nineteenth-century Britain to have new life poured into it, for something to be done, became stronger. As L. J. Williams (1971), the economic historian, pointed out, although the size and nature of the unemployment problem changed comparatively little over the two decades of the inter-war period, there was, with the flood of writing, research and social heart-searching on the topic, a much greater awareness of the basically localised and structural nature of the unemployment problem. With the publication of Keynes’ General Theory, 1936 became the key year for advancing (but not implementing) modern economic solutions to the problem of unemployment. By this time, it was clear that the British economy had recovered from its low point at the beginning of 1932, and was growing rapidly compared with its European rivals, and even compared with the USA. At the same time, to the government’s great embarrassment, a number of studies of unemployment and poverty were revealing the causal link with poor health. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, commissioned one of these studies from the Medical Officer of Health for Stockton-on-Tees, whose research showed that an appalling ninety-four per cent of children in County Durham schools had signs of rickets as a result of poor diet. In March, the future PM and Conservative MP for Stockton,  Harold Macmillan, published Sir John Boyd Orr’s massive study, Food, Health and Income. This was an act of rebellion by a Conservative MP representing a northern industrial constituency. The government had done its best to suppress the study, which revealed the devastating fact that:

… one third of the population of this country, including all the unemployed, were unable, after paying rent, to purchase sufficient of the more expensive foods to give them an adequate diet.

Moreover, Boyd Orr calculated that that half the population did not eat ‘up to the modern health standard’. Rural poverty was also shown to be rising rapidly. Ted Willis, a young socialist in 1936, recalled how his mother used to go out and buy four pennyworths of scrag end of lamb and with that, she would make a big stew which would last us two or three days. On one occasion, he came home to find his mother putting a lid on the stew and taking it out of the house.  When he protested at her taking it to a neighbour’s house, his mother slapped his face, saying You’re hungry, but they’re starving!  In 1934 a National Assistance Board had been created, which set a uniform rate for ‘unemployment assistance throughout the country.’ In general, benefits to the unemployed were cut by about ten per cent in the 1930s. In South Wales, Central Scotland and the North of England, unemployed people were much more reliant on means-tested and discretionary benefits than insurance. This was because periods of unemployment in these areas were longer, forcing unemployed workers onto ‘the dole’ when their insurance benefits ran out. This fuelled the sense of shame and anger among the unemployed and their families. René Cutforth commented on the continuing plight of the unemployed throughout the decade:

To the end of the decade about a million and a half workers were relegated to limbo and their lives laid waste. But not without a struggle. 

Fighting back; Marching on …

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The unemployed ‘struggled’ against their condition by marching, organising rallies and engaging in rent strikes. Led by Wal Hannington of the CPGB, the NUWM had around twenty thousand members by 1932, with the active support of at least twice that number. Their most famous actions were the ‘Hunger Marches’ of 1932, 1934 and 1936. There were also protest marches against the introduction and operation of the means test, particularly from Scotland and South Wales. The photographs below show Wal Hannington and Harry McShane leading the Scottish marchers and contingents from Teeside and Sunderland crossing the Tyne Bridge in 1932.

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The pictures of the 1934 March on the left below are two of those taken of the women’s column which marched to London from Derby. They capture the feeling of comradeship and purpose that existed between the marchers on their wintry trek to London. The shots of the first aid treatment of blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women, either unemployed themselves or having out-of-work husbands. The marchers all depended on the goodwill of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. The picture on the right shows heads turning in the crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square on 3rd March, as they watched the approach of the marchers

The March Council had requested a meeting with the PM, Ramsay MacDonald in a letter supported by a number of Labour MPs, but they did not succeed in putting their case to the House of Commons, though they had the support of a large number of MPs including Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee also spoke up for the marchers, saying that they were …

… fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous … there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

The marchers sent a delegation to Downing Street, led by two ILP MPs, Maxton and McGovern, and the two Communist leaders of the NUWM, Hannington and McShane. He was ‘not at home’, but, in an outburst in the Commons, asked, …

… Has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first-class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind! 

However, the most successful march was not organised by the NUWM and in fact, eschewed any involvement from it and other sectarian organisations. In fact, ‘The Jarrow Crusade’ of October 1936 owed that success to the determinedly non-political and cross-party organisation of its leaders, most notably that of the town’s Labour (and ILP) MP, Ellen Wilkinson with the official support of Jarrow’s Mayor, Bill Thompson, who was a Labour man, but insisted that it should have the backing of all parties. It was an entirely bipartisan, peaceful march for jobs, approved by the whole Council, which also enjoyed the support of many local and regional Church leaders, including the Bishop of Sheffield, though (infamously) not the Bishop of Durham. It involved two hundred carefully-chosen, relatively fit unemployed men. Jarrow was one of the worst-hit areas in England, largely because of the closure of its shipyard, with eighty per cent of its workers on the dole. The ‘crusaders’ carried over eighty thousand signatures to Parliament, asking the House of Commons to realise the urgent need that work should be provided without delay. They achieved little in the short-term by way of economic relief but did draw widespread public attention to the plight of the unemployed ‘left behind’ in the older industrial areas as the economy as a whole recovered in 1936, due to the expansion of newer industries and the beginnings of rearmament.

The Labour Party, together with the TUC, was fearful of the taint of Communism that went with hunger marches and instructed local branches to reject requests for help from the crusaders as they passed. Some delegates at the Party conference in Edinburgh that October attacked Ellen Wilkinson directly. One of them, Lucy Middleton, criticised her for sending hungry and ill-clad men on a march to London, advocating the making of propaganda films about the distressed areas instead. This ‘stab in the back’ from her own party was one which would rankle for years to come. Though hailing from one of the poorer areas of Coming from metropolitan Manchester herself, Wilkinson soon discovered that, in a tight-knit community such as Jarrow, where almost all were workless, the highly-skilled man, the ambitious young foreman, the keenest trade-unionists provided the leadership for the unemployed. One such man was David Riley, the Council leader, a hefty Irishman with an iron will. He volunteered to lead them on the road to London and it was he who insisted that this would be a ‘crusade’, not another hunger march. An appeal for signatures for the petition and funds was made under the Mayor’s name and Thompson used his civic position to gain the support of the many Conservative town councils along the route south. Paradoxically, it was the Conservative councils who most often held out the hand of friendship to the crusaders. Following Thompson’s request, and joint letters from the Conservative and Labour agents, they offered food and lodging at every Tory-controlled town and village through which the men passed, including Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield.

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Ellen Wilkinson (pictured above, leading the Crusade) had described herself, on more than one occasion, as a ‘revolutionary socialist’, and had needed a great deal of persuasion not to raise the issues of party politics during the Crusade. She was the moving spirit in Jarrow, a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire, the year before, during the General Election campaign, she had led a march to ‘beard’ Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. In the event, all that march achieved was a bleating admonition from the cornered statesman:

Ellen, why don’t you go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this?

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On 5 October, the two hundred men set out under a banner, ‘Jarrow Crusade’ to march to London, three hundred miles away, as an official delegation to Parliament. Everybody turned out to watch them go. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles and, after that, Ellen Wilkinson. David Riley insisted on the removal of any socialist banners that appeared with sympathisers along the route. One marcher was sent home for expressing ‘communistic beliefs’ and another was threatened with expulsion. It was an effective policy since other marches were ignored, whereas the Crusade received widespread friendly attention from the press, and the march became a long-running national story. The government became alarmed by its popularity, as the Manchester Guardian reported that there could be no doubt that the march was an abounding success – the organisation seems well-nigh perfect. The Cabinet issued a statement in a parliamentary democracy, processions to London cannot claim to have any constitutional influence on policy.  No deputations would be received by ministers.

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This response might have been expected, but the crusaders’ reception by the Labour town council in Chesterfield was surprising, considering the welcome they had just received from the Sheffield Tories. The pleas for assistance were turned down, forcing the marchers to rely on the charity of local businessmen, mainly Tories, for food and blankets. Ellen Wilkinson recalled how they weighed in with hot meals and a place to sleep. A clear pattern was emerging, with the Conservatives welcoming and Labour shunning, a pattern which continued to the end of the trek, to the enduring bitterness of all the crusaders. In Leicester, however, the Co-op worked all night mending their boots. Bedford, in the suspect south, rallied to their support. They arrived in London in a cloudburst with their mouth-organ band playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’. On their final evening in London, they had hoped to be addressed by the London Labour leader, Herbert Morrison, together with an audience of influential Londoners. In the event, he did not show up, probably on the orders of the national leadership, and had to be replaced by Canon Dick Sheppard as the keynote speaker (pictured below).

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The next morning the crusaders went to the House of Commons, dressed in smart suits specially bought for the occasion with funds raised during the march. They were expecting to deliver the petition, but Stanley Baldwin, with the support of Neville Chamberlain (pictured above) refused to allow the men to come to the bar of the House to deliver the petition in person. To avoid any ugly scenes, Ellen Wilkinson gave them a guided tour of Westminster and then packed the majority of the men onto a River Thames pleasure-boat for a sightseeing cruise. It was a deception cooked up with Sir John Jarvis, a Surrey MP with longstanding charitable connections to Jarrow. Only a few of the men were allowed to watch from the Strangers’ Gallery while Wilkinson went through the solemn procedure of presenting the petition to the Speaker. She spoke tearfully of their plight, but Runciman, who had said earlier that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, refused to answer a question because it was not on the order paper, although he did say that his information was that the situation in Jarrow was improving. Baldwin refused to say anything, and that was it. When they arrived back in Jarrow by train, the speakers at the Town Hall put a brave face on the obvious failure of the crusade. The goal of the march was to get the National Government to overturn the decision to close down the shipyard, not to put up a new steelworks, as Jarvis had proposed at the last minute, looking like a ‘fairy-godfather’, but in reality, simply trying to help save the Conservative Party from an electoral wipe-out in a region devastated by economic malaise.

Nevertheless, the crusaders had aroused a sympathy throughout the country which compels the Government to act, as David Riley told them. By rejecting class-based politics and appealing to broader social sympathies, the Jarrow Crusade had touched the hearts of many for whom talk of the distressed areas had meant nothing until they saw it in person or on the newsreels. With its military discipline, and containing in its ranks many veterans of the First World War, it harked back to that conflict, evoking in the onlooker feelings of compassion and guilt. The Crusade was also one of the foundations of a new consensus that was emerging and would solidify after the Second World War. The country came to agree almost unanimously that such extremes of poverty should never be allowed to return. A new, very British idea of social justice was emerging and a collective opinion-forming that would eventually give rise to the welfare state. Jarrow was the classic march, but even while it was going on, other marches were in progress. Four hundred Scotsmen from Glasgow, for instance, were marching south to join up with other contingents from South Wales and elsewhere to protest against the means test, as seen in the photos below. Marching became an epidemic in the Thirties in Britain.

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The NUWM had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and contingents of women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November 1936. The two postcard-size photographs below came from South Wales. When the eight hundred marchers, carrying their Keir Hardie banner from Aberdare, reached Slough, they were greeted by eleven thousand compatriots, because by that time Slough had become known as ‘little Wales’ peopled by migrants from the valleys. 

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The photograph below shows some of the Welsh marchers lining up outside Cater Street School, Camberwell, where they were to spend the night, prior to the march to the Hyde Park rally. Among the speakers were Aneurin Bevan MP and Clement Attlee. The former said that ‘The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILPers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.’ The latter moved the resolution that ‘the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed. …’

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From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

Politicians of all the parliamentary parties began to fear a revolution by the end of 1936, not least because there were Fascists as well as Communists marching. The Church became involved with William Temple, the Christian Socialist Archbishop of York commissioning a scientific inquiry into long-term unemployment, Men Without Work, based on the experiences of the jobless for twelve months up to November 1936 as its evidence. Researchers were sent out across Britain as a whole to immerse themselves in the areas of greatest poverty, staying in the households of the workless. Besides being a national survey, those sent by Archbishop Temple were experts, unlike Orwell. They were economists, psychologists and social scientists, funded by the Pilgrim Trust and supervised by the Director of the London School of Economics, Sir William Beveridge, who advised them to study in detail the lives of a thousand long-term unemployed men, and their families; their health, living conditions and physical environment. Beveridge was able, from 1942, to use their findings to provide the evidential basis for the creation of the post-war Welfare State.

One of these researchers was a young Jewish refugee, Hans Singer. A brilliant economist, he had moved to Britain to study under his hero, John Maynard Keynes. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Singer found him himself the victim of anti-Semitic abuse as a professor at Istanbul and moved to Cambridge. After two years, Keynes recommended him to Temple because of his interest in unemployment. His detailed research papers, archived at the LSE, are essential sources for social historians of the period. Many of these, along with the Pilgrim Trust Report in full, were not published until 1937, by which time the argument for ‘Planning’ had already been won. But the devil still remained in the detail of the implementation, in which the Labour Party had little if any official responsibility, except on a local basis. However, together with a more united and progressive Left, they did have increasing influence over public opinion nationally and regionally.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry (University of Warwick): The Cryfield Press.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

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Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

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Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

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There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

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The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

015

The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

002

The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

001

In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

017 (2)

In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

017

Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

001

The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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What, When & Where Was Socialism?: Hungary & Europe.   Leave a comment

 

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Thirty Years After the Fall: Is Socialism Dead?

Júlia Tar’s recent piece on the Hungarian government’s online media outlet, Hungary Today, points out that 2019 is the anniversary of not one, but three remarkable events of the 20th century: NATO’s 70th anniversary; Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic’s 20th anniversary since joining NATO, and the thirtieth anniversary of dismantlement of the Iron Curtain and of the Berlin Wall. According to Eugene Megyesy, the former Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Hungary and a Member of the Board of Trustees of the Friends of Hungary Foundation, publisher of Hungary Today, we might not have learned from these historical events. 1956 was a significant year for Hungary because of its revolt against the Soviet Union and dictatorial communism. The revolt was followed by the Prague Spring in 1968 and the Polish Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. Then,

Hungary opened the Iron Curtain toward Austria, allowing East Germans to flee the oppression of the Utopian socialist system, thereby rendering the Berlin Wall obsolete.

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This was on 11 September 1989 (not June, as stated), when a courageous decision was taken at the urging of leading Socialist reformers in the government like Imre Pozsgay, and in spite of threats of invasion from Berlin. By November, the Berlin Wall had itself been destroyed. In summarising Megyesy’s ‘view’, Tar claims that…

… socialism was always built on the promises of a Utopian system, equality and the ability to solve all social problems (“heaven on earth”).

Eugene Megyesy warns that this is happening again in some countries:

Sadly, there are politicians and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels, supported by ivory tower academics, media pundits and Hollywood luminaries, who believe socialism is viable.

Megyesy urges today’s generation to look back and think about whether socialism was ever successful. It may have been, but only for a limited period of time. He cites the unsustainability of the capitalism-backed socialistic systems in the Scandinavian countries as an example. In Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela, it is even worse and only serves to highlight the gap between the poor and the leaders living in luxury, Megyesy explains. Before socialism, Venezuela was one of the richest countries; now it’s one of the poorest. According to Megyesy, socialism means…

… control over all means of production and the redistribution of wealth by the government.

Definitions and Debates:

But not every ‘socialist’ today would agree with this definition, and especially the idea that public control means control by the central or federal government. Neither does this interpretation match those of the multifarious strands of socialism in western Europe which developed from the middle of the nineteenth century. To define socialism and understand its roots, a longer and broader view is necessary, not just one which draws conclusions based on events since the spread of Stalinism across eastern Europe, or which focuses on recent events in North Korea or Venezuela for evidence of the failings of the Utopian Socialist system. Many of the twentieth century’s ‘dystopias’ may have had their origins among the nineteenth century ‘isms’, as in previous centuries they were often the product of misguided Christian millenarianism, like ‘anti-Semitism’, but that does not mean that we should simply discard the thinking of the philosophers and political economists who developed their detailed critiques of capitalism any more than we should reject two millennia of Christian theology. After all, as Marx himself noted, philosophers only interpret the world: the point is to change it. 

In seeking to change its own world, each new generation must produce its own reinterpretation of the ideas handed down to it from past generations and come up with its own solutions to its own moral dilemmas and social problems. That is, in essence, what socialism means to me. We should neither rely on theories from posterity nor reject them out of hand as if all who came before us were thieves and robbers. We can only learn from the past by giving it a fair hearing, remembering as the novelist J P Hartley famously wrote, the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. We are solely responsible for our own ‘country’ in equity

the ‘present’, and for not learning from our own mistakes in its past. In this context, and according to the eminent ‘man of letters’ of the twentieth century, Raymond Williams (1983), ‘Socialist’ emerged as a philosophical description in the early nineteenth century. In that century and beyond, it could be used in two ways, which have had profound effects on the use of the term by radically different political tendencies. Of course, social was the merely descriptive term for a society in its now predominant sense of the system of common life; a social reformer wished to reform this system. But ‘social’ was also …

… an emphatic and distinguishing term, explicitly contrasted with ‘individual’ and ‘individualist’ theories of society.

Naturally, there has always been a great deal of interaction and overlap between these two meanings, but their varying effect can be seen in the beginning in the formation of the term. In the first sense, it was viewed as an extension of ‘liberalism’ as it referred to radical political reform of the social order, in order to develop, extend and secure the main liberal values for all members of society; political freedom, the ending of privileges and formal inequalities, social justice (conceived as ‘equity’ between different individuals and groups). In the second sense, it was seen as the ‘enemy’ of competitive, individualist forms of society, specifically industrial capitalism with its system of wage-labour. Truly social forms depended on practical co-operation and mutuality, which in turn could not be achieved while there was still private (individual) ownership of the means of production. Real freedom could not be achieved, basic equalities could not be ended, social justice (conceived as a just social order rather than simply ‘equity’ between individuals) could not be established unless a society based on private property was replaced by one based on social ownership and control.

H. G. Wells, writing his well-known book in 1922, A Short History of the World, expressed the dichotomy in the following terms:

On the one hand are the individualists, who would protect and enlarge our present freedoms with what we possess, and on the other hand the socialists, who would pool our ownerships and restrain our proprietary acts. In practice one will find every graduation between the extreme individualist, who will scarcely tolerate a tax of any sort to support a government, and the communist, who would deny any possessions at all. The ordinary socialist of today is what is called a collectivist; he would allow a considerable amount of private property, but put such affairs as education, transport, mines, land-owning, most mass production of staple articles, and the like, into the hands of a highly organised state. Nowadays there does seem to be a gradual convergence of reasonable men towards a scientifically studied and planned socialism.  

The resulting controversy among the many groups and tendencies all calling themselves ‘socialist’ has been, long, intricate and frequently bitter. Each main tendency has developed alternative, often derogatory terms for the others. But until circa 1850, the word was too new and too general to have any predominant use. The earliest known use in English is in Hazlitt’s On Persons One Would Wish to Have Seen (1826), in which he recalls a conversation from 1809 in writing those profound and redoubted socialists, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. There is also a contemporary use in the 1827 Owenite Co-operative Magazine. Its first recorded political use in French dates from 1833. However, ‘socialisme’ was first used in 1831 in the more generic meaning, and Owen’s New Moral World also contains a similar use. Given the intense political climate in both France and England in the 1820s and 30s, these references provide a sense of the period in which the word came into ‘common coinage’. It could not have been known at that time which meaning of the word would come through as dominant. It was a period of very rapid developments in political discourse, and until well into the 1840s there were a number of alternative words for ‘socialist’, some of which were in more common usage: co-operative, mutualist, associationist, societarian, phalansterian, agrarian, radical. As late as 1848 Webster’s (AmE) Dictionary defined ‘socialism’ as ‘a new term for agrarianism’. By that time in Europe, especially in France and Germany, and to a lesser extent in Britain, both ‘socialist’ and ‘socialism’ were common terms.

One alternative term, Communist, had begun to be used in France and England by the 1840s, but the sense of the word varied according to particular national contexts. In England in the 1840s, communist had strong religious associations, dating back to the Puritan sects of the seventeenth century. Thus its use was distinct from the secular word ‘socialist’ as used by Robert Owen, which was sometimes avoided for that reason. ‘Communism’ before Marx meant the primitive form practised in the early church when the followers of Jesus ‘held all things in common’. The ‘True Levellers’ or ‘Diggers’ of the English Commonwealth similarly wanted to abolish private property and social distinctions altogether. In the nineteenth century, their ideological ‘descendants’ believed this could only happen if a democratic state was to own all property. The French ‘anarchist’ philosopher Proudhon wrote that all property is theft. But the development of political ideas in France and Germany were different; so much so that Engels, in his Preface of 1888, looking back to the Communist Manifesto which he and Marx had written in 1848, observed:

We could not have called it a ‘Socialist’ manifesto. In 1847, Socialism was a middle-class movement. Socialism was, on the continent at least, respectable; Communism was the very opposite.

For a time, the stresses between employers and employees led to the worldwide dissemination of the very harsh and elementary form of communism which is associated with Karl Marx in particular. However, we need to view Marx’s political economy in its proper context as an integral shift in thinking about how to interpret the new industrial world which had grown up ‘like Topsy’ around the common man. It was only as the nineteenth century developed, according to H. G. Wells, that:

… men began to realise that property was not one simple thing but  a great complex of ownerships of different values and consequences … that there is a very great range of things, railways, machinery of various sorts, homes, cultivated gardens, pleasure-boats, for example, which need each to be considered very particularly to determine how far and under what limitations it may come under private ownership, and how far it falls into the public domain and may be administered and let out by the state in the collective interest. 

Socialism and Communism in Europe, 1871-1918:

Across the continent, the relative militancy associated with the word communist was further strengthened by the very visual effect of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted below), though there was a significant argument as to whether the correct term to be derived from the event was Communist or Communard. For at least a ten-year period, the word Syndicalist became at least as important across Europe as a whole. It described the development of industrial trades unionism as a revolutionary force which would overthrow the capitalist system through the use of the General Strike and revolutionary violence in general. The word appeared in French in 1904 and in English in 1907; but it went through varying combinations with anarchism (in its stress on mutuality) and socialism, especially with Guild Socialism and Cooperative movements, emphasising the important interests of the consumer in economic models for the future.

The Commune as Seen by Jacques Tardi (“Le cri du peuple”), 2002.

The decisive distinction between ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ came with the renaming, in 1918, of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party as the All-Russian Communist Party (the ‘majority’ or Bolsheviks). From that time on, a distinction of ‘socialist’ from ‘communist’, often with supporting terms and adjectives such as ‘social democrat’ or ‘democratic socialist’ came into common currency, although it is significant that all ‘communist’ parties, especially in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and its ‘satellite’ states, continued to describe themselves as ‘socialist’ and dedicated to ‘socialism’. This is one reason why, in central-eastern Europe, socialism is still viewed by many as synonymous with communism in contrast to the use of the word throughout the rest of Europe. That does not mean, however, that the history of socialist and social democratic parties in southern, western and northern Europe can simply be tarnished with the same brush of the ‘Stalinist’ past, as Medgyesy and other politicians have attempted to do in the run-up to this year’s European Parliament elections. Even Jean-Claude Junker, President of the European Commission and a member of the conservative European People’s Party has been characterised as a ‘socialist’ in the Hungarian press and media.

The First Hungarian Republic, the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ & the Horthy Era, 1918-44:

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The Proclamation of Mihály Károlyi as President of the new Republic of Hungary.

Elsewhere on this site, I have written about the roots and development of liberal democracy in Hungary, and of how both of these have been fractured by various forms of authoritarianism and dictatorship, more recently of a populist variety. Yet even in Hungary, we can trace the origins of socialist movements back to 1907, when a series of strikes and disturbances among both the urban and rural workers. But the promise of electoral reform, for which a crowd of a hundred thousand demonstrated for a second time on ‘Red Thursday’, 10th October 1907, came to nothing when Andrássy’s modest bill expanding the suffrage was rejected by the Hungarian parliament. Seven years later, the Social Democrats, as elsewhere in Europe, supported the patriotic war effort, perhaps hoping for democratic concessions in return. Following the Revolution of November 1918, with the establishment of a republic ruled by a National Council, the Károlyi government embarked on the programme of social and political reforms it had announced. These were badly needed, given the explosive atmosphere in the country. There was no political force in Hungary at the time that would have been able to answer all of the conflicting interests and expectations of these turbulent times. Although the elections to the new national assembly were conducted on the basis of a franchise including half the population, second only those in Scandinavia at that time, the effects of progressive social legislation, including the introduction of unemployment benefit and the eight-hour working day, the abolition of child labour and the extension of insurance schemes, could not yet be felt. The political scene became polarised, involving the appearance of radical movements both on the Right and the Left.

The streets, for the time being, belonged to the political Left. Appeals of moderate Social Democratic ministers to order and patience evoked the contrary effect and served to alienate the disaffected masses from them. Their new heroes were the Communists, organised as a party on 24 November 1918 and led by Béla Kun. He was a former journalist and trades unionist, who had recently returned from captivity in Russia, where he had become convinced of the superiority of the system of Soviets to parliamentary democracy.  Communist propaganda also promised an end to all exploitation through the nationalisation of property, as well as international stability through the fraternity of Soviet republics which were prophesied to arise all over Europe. Within a few weeks, this attractive utopia, underpinned by well-designed social demagogy, had earned the Communists a membership of about forty thousand. Their supporters, several times that number, mobilised among the marginalised masses and the younger members of the intelligentsia, susceptible to revolutionary romanticism. By January 1919, a wave of strikes had swept across the country, in the course of which factories, transport and communication installations were occupied; in addition, land seizures and attempts to introduce collective agriculture marked the communist initiative, which also included the demand not only to eradicate all remnants of feudalism, but also the proclamation of a Hungarian Soviet Republic, and a foreign policy seeking the friendship of Soviet Russia instead of the Entente powers.

While the radicals on both the Right and the Left openly challenged the fundamental tenets of the Károlyi government, his Independence Party evaporated around him. Unhappy with the reform projects which Károlyi embraced and seemed too radical for them, most of the Independent ministers left the government, leaving the Social Democrats as the main government party. But they were struggling helplessly to tame their own radical left, who effectively constituted an internal opposition to the government, and gravitated towards the Communists. On 21 March 1919, the Social Democrats accepted the invitation to take sole responsibility for the government, but only to accelerate and conclude negotiations with the imprisoned Communist leaders about forming a united workers’ party. A new government, the Revolutionary General Council, presided over by a Social Democrat but in effect led by Béla Kun, was formed on the same day, with the declared aim of establishing a Leninist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

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Certainly, the measures introduced by the Revolutionary government went beyond anything attempted in Soviet Russia at that time. The counterpart of these measures in the administrative and political reorganisation of the country was the replacement of old local, municipal and county bureaucracies with soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. A ‘Committee of Public Safety’ was organised to put pressure on the civilian population where it was needed in order to maintain the dictatorship of the proletariat, its head, Tibor Szamuely travelling in his ‘death train’ to trouble spots in order to preside in summary courts, assisted by the notorious ‘Lenin Boys’, created to supplement the ‘Red Guard’, which took over the ordinary functions of the police and gendarmerie. Besides common murders of actual or alleged enemies by the ‘élite detachments, some 120 death sentences were meted out by the tribunals for political reasons.

The great momentum of the changes was partly intended to convince people that the realisation of the ‘socialist utopia’ was imminent. Social policy measures, the expected alleviation of housing shortages through public ownership of accommodation in a country flooded by refugees, the nationalisation of large firms, improved educational opportunities, the more effective supply of food and consumer goods through rationing and supervised distribution met with widespread approval, especially among the urban population. The intellectual élite, who had applauded the democratic reforms of the autumn of 1918, was initially also allured by the attractive goals of the Soviet Republic. They not only included known Marxists like György Lukács, the writer, who became People’s Commissar for Education, but also members of the Nyugati (Western) Circle, who held positions in the Directorate for Literature, and Bartók and Kodály, who became members of the one for music. Gradually, however, these figures became disaffected, as did the intelligentsia and middle classes in general and the leaders of the October 1918 democratic revolution, some of whom emigrated the following summer. By then, the historian Gyula Székfű, who was appointed professor at the University of Budapest, was already at work on his highly influential Three Generations (1920), in which he was hostile not only towards the communist revolution but also towards democracy and liberalism, which he blamed for paving the way for Kun’s régime.

The revolution and the village were unable to come to terms with each other. Despite the steady urbanisation of the previous half-century, Hungary still remained a largely agricultural country, especially after much of its towns were taken away by occupation even before the Treaty of Trianon of 1920. Besides being economically unsound the amidst the shortage of raw materials and fuel to supply machinery supposedly more efficient large-scale co-operatives than in smallholdings, the nationalisation scheme embittered not only the smallholders themselves, who actually lost land, but also the landless peasants, domestic servants and the agricultural labourers whose dreams of becoming independent farmers were thwarted by the same urban revolutionaries who had formerly encouraged land seizures. Decrees regarding the compulsory delivery of agricultural surplus and requisitioning further undermined whatever popularity the government still enjoyed in the countryside. It blamed the food shortages on the peasantry, which exacerbated the already existing rift between town and country, and served as a pretext for further central control of the economy. The anti-clerical measures taken by the government also annoyed the traditionally devout peasants, concerned about the security of ‘the family hearth’.

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All of this made the communists more susceptible to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which did not fail to emphasise the foreign (that is, Jewish) character of the revolution (over half of the commissars were indeed of Jewish ethnicity). An ‘Anti-Bolshevik’ Committee was set up in Vienna in April by representatives of nearly all the old parties led by Count István Bethlen, and a counter-revolutionary government was set up at Arad on 5 May, later moving to Szeged. Paradoxically, the Soviet Republic was maintained in power for over four months, despite the increasingly dictatorial means it employed, mainly by the temporary successes it scored on the nationalities’ issue; it collapsed not in the face of internal counter-revolution but when its military position against the allies of the Entente in the region became untenable. The Entente powers, gathered at the Paris Peace Conference, sent General Smuts, the prime minister of South Africa, to Budapest, mainly to obtain reliable first-hand information about the situation there in April 1919. Smuts concluded that Hungary truly had a government of Bolshevik character, which gave weight to the French Prime Minister Clemenceau’s proposal to suppress German revanchist designs as well as the spread of Soviet communism into Western Europe by a cordon sanitaire established out of the new states of Central Europe. Harold Nicolson, the young British diplomat who accompanied Smuts on the train leaving Paris on April Fools’ Day, wrote about these concerns about the Germans turning to Bolshevism in a letter to his wife Vita (pictured below, together in Paris):

They have always got the trump card, i.e. Bolshevism – and they will go the moment they feel it is hopeless for them to get good terms. 

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Small wonder, therefore, that Béla Kun’s strike for communism triggered many anxious moments for the Supreme Council. The negotiations were conducted from the wagon-lit of Smuts’ train at the Eastern Station in Budapest, so as not to imply recognition of the régime, encircled by Red Guards with ‘fixed bayonets and scarlet brassards’. They centred on whether or not the Hungarian Bolsheviks would accept the Allies’ armistice terms, which would commit them to accept considerable territorial losses. As they hesitated, Harold decided to explore Budapest, a city he had grown up in before the war. He was alarmed and saddened by what he saw:

‘The whole place is wretched – sad – unkempt.’ He took tea at the Hungaria, Budapest’s leading hotel. Although it had been ‘communised’, it flew ‘a huge Union Jack and Tricoleur’, a gesture of good intent. Red Guards with bayonets patrolled the hall, but in the foyer what remained of Budapest society ‘huddled sadly together with anxious eyes and a complete, ghastly silence’, sipping their lemonade ‘while the band played’. ‘I shudder and feel cold,’ Harold remarked. ‘We leave as soon as possible. Silent eyes search out at us as we go.’

Kun desperately needed allied recognition of his government, but he inserted a clause into Smuts’ draft agreement that the Romanian forces should withdraw to a line east of the neutral zone established by the 1918 Armistice, in effect to evacuate Transylvania. Smuts would not countenance this, however, and the Bolsheviks were ‘silent and sullen’. Nicolson wrote that they looked like convicts standing before the Director of the Prison. Smuts concluded that ‘Béla Kun is just an incident and not worth taking seriously’. This proved to be only too true, as on 10 April, only a day after Harold’s account to Vita, a provisional government was set up in Budapest seeking to reinstate the old ruling Hungarian cliques. On 1 August, Kun fled the capital in the face of invading Romanian armies. He ended his days in Russia, dying in 1936, ironically as the victim of one of Stalin’s innumerable purges. The world revolution that was expected to sweep away the corrupt bourgeois politicians of the peace conference and their allies spluttered to a halt. The Bavarian Soviet Republic, proclaimed on 7 April, hardly survived into May and the communist putsch planned by Kun’s agents in Vienna on 15 June also failed. Meanwhile, General Deniken’s counter-revolutionary offensive in Russia thwarted hopes of help from across the Carpathians.

Facing an ever more turbulent domestic situation marked by widespread peasant unrest and an uprising of the students of the military academy in Budapest, the Revolutionary government, after heated debates, decided to give in to the demands of the Peace Conference, withdrawing Hungarian forces from Slovakia behind the demarcation line at the end of June. Aurél Stromfeld, who as Chief of the General Staff led the Red Army into Slovakia which led to the short-lived Soviet Republic proclaimed there on 16 June, resigned in protest against the ‘capitulation’. Some of his generals now started to join the National Army, organised by the counter-revolutionary government in Szeged, under the command of Admiral Miklós Horthy, the last commander-in-chief of the Austro-Hungarian navy. When the Romanians refused to retreat behind the neutral zone as envisaged, the Red Army launched a surprise offensive along the River Tisza. The initial advance was aborted, however, and ended in a disorderly flight of the Red Army. On 1 August, with the Romanian forces threatening to occupy the Hungarian capital, the commissars handed back power to the Social Democrats on the advice of trade union leaders that the creation of a government acceptable to the Entente powers was the only way to avoid complete foreign occupation. The next day, a government led by the trade unionist leader Gyula Peidl, who had refused to accept the creation of a united workers’ party, took office.

Although it promised to end the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ while at the same time defying a conservative restoration, the new government was still regarded as crypto-Bolshevik not only by conservatives but also by Liberals, peasant democrats and Christian Socialists. It also failed to gain support from the Entente. Assisted by the Romanian army, occupying Budapest, a coup forced the government to resign on 6 August. The government headed by István Friedrich, immediately set about annulling all the measures associated with the Soviet Republic, especially the nationalisation process. It also dismantled all the major social reforms of the democratic revolution, including those associated with individual civil liberties. Revolutionary tribunals were replaced by counter-revolutionary ones, packing prisons with workers, poor peasants and intellectuals, and by the beginning of 1920 it had passed roughly as many death sentences as had the lackeys of the ‘red terror’, the ‘Lenin Boys’. The intellectual élite of the country suffered a serious blow. Bartók and Kodály were prosecuted, Móricz was imprisoned and several dozen left the country, including Lukács, Mannheim and Korda. Horthy’s ‘National Army’, now transferred to Transdanubia, controlled and gave orders to local authorities and its most notorious detachments were instruments of naked terror. In three months, they may have killed as many as two thousand suspected former Soviet members, Red Army soldiers, and ordinary Jews who were in no way associated with the proletarian dictatorship. Besides executions and lynchings, about seventy thousand people were imprisoned or sent to internment camps during these few months.

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Despite the protests of the Social Democrats and other left-wing forces, the occupying Romanian forces were replaced by Horthy’s National Army in Budapest. His speech before the notables of the capital stigmatised it as ‘the sinful city’ that had rejected its glorious past, Holy Crown and national colours for the sake of red rags. This suited an atmosphere in which most of the remaining adherents of the democratic revolution as well as the communist one were neutralised in one way or another. The returning conservatives promised to heal the country’s war-wounds by returning it to order, authority and the mythical ‘Christian-national system of values’. Sir George Clerk, the leader of the Peace Conference’s mission to Budapest in October 1919, abandoned his initial insistence that the Social Democrats and the Liberals should have an important role in a coalition government. As Horthy commanded the only troops capable of maintaining order and was ready to subordinate them to government control, it had to be acceptable to Horthy personally and the military in general. As a result, the cabinet formed by Károly Huszár on 24 November 1919 was one in which the Christian National Unity Party and other conservative-agrarian groups prevailed over those of the Independent Smallholder Party, the Social Democrats and the Liberals. Even though the great powers insisted that voting should take place by universal and secret ballot, the circumstances were unfavourable to fulfilling any illusion of a democratic outcome. Terrorist actions by detachments of the National Army and the recovering extreme right-wing organisations, designed to intimidate the candidates and voters for the Social Democrats, Smallholders and Liberals, led to the former boycotting the elections of January 1920 and withdrawing from the political arena until mid-1922.

On 1 March 1920, the army occupied the square in front of the Parliament building, and, accompanied by his officers, Horthy entered and, according to medieval precedent, was ‘elected’ Regent, with strong Presidential powers. This signalled the end of Hungary’s own short experiment with democratic socialism, following its even briefer experience of home-grown communism. Count Pál Teleki and Count István Bethlen, the dominant political figures of inter-war Hungary, both from Transylvanian aristocratic families, argued that the immediate post-war events had shown that the country was not yet ready to graft full democracy onto the parliamentary system. They advocated a limited ‘conservative democracy’, guided by the landed gentry and the aristocracy, as the proper response of the region to the challenges of the democratic age. They opposed all endeavours aimed at the radical extension of the liberal rights enshrined in the parliamentarism of the dualist. Liberal democracy seemed to them a mechanical application of the majority principle, undermining political responsibility and stability. They despised communism and were suspicious of social democracy because of its antipathy to private property. But they also opposed the right-wing radical and fascist trends epitomised by Gyula Gömbös and other ‘protectors of the race’ who thought that the parliamentary system had outlived its usefulness and ought to be replaced by an authoritarian rule which would facilitate a redistribution of economic functions in favour of the Hungarian Christian middle classes and away from the ‘foreign’ bourgeoisie (in other words, the Jews).

The fundamental character which the political system of the country retained until the German occupation of 1944 had emerged by 1922 as a result of Bethlenite consolidation. Hungary became a parliamentary state with strong elements of authoritarianism and a hegemonistic party structure, in which the institutions inherited from the liberal era were operated in an anti-democratic fashion. The government acknowledged a lawful political opposition, consisting on the left of Social Democrats, bourgeois liberals and, after 1930 a rejuvenated Independent Smallholder Party; and on the right of different groups of Christian Socialists as well as right radicals. One of the most important developments in the intellectual life of the Horthy era was the development of ‘populist’ writers, predominantly young and of peasant origin, who wrote ethnographically-based pieces revealing the economic and intellectual poverty of life in rural Hungary and drawing the attention of the ruling classes to the need for change. In ideological terms, some of them, most notably László Németh, advocated a ‘third way’ for Hungary between East and West, or between Soviet collectivism and capitalist individualism. Some, including Gyula Illyés and Ferenc Erdei, sympathised with socialism. Their top priority was the improvement in the lot of the poor peasantry through a genuine redistribution of land among them. But their willingness to engage with both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, as well as their emphasis on the ‘village’ as the root of ‘Hungarianness’, with its anti-Semitic overtones, led it into conflict with more cosmopolitan democrats and ‘urbanist’ intellectuals. This was symptomatic of a broader and longer-term division among Hungarian progressives which survived the attempts of even the Soviet communists to homogenise Hungarian society as well as the post-1989 transition to democracy and is resurgent in the propaganda of the current right-wing populist era.

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The Second Hungarian Republic & The Eras of Rákosi & Kádár, 1945-1989:

The second Republic of 1945 was equally as brittle as that which followed the First World War, ending in a Soviet-style government which lasted more than forty years. By the time of the elections of November 1945, the communist vanguard, which had numbered only three thousand a year before, had managed to create a mass party of half a million members as a result of an unscrupulous recruiting campaign. Unlike the Social Democrats, they did not mention socialism as being even their strategic goal, and their rhetoric concentrated mainly on the pressing tasks of reconstruction combined with reform. Their avowed programme was essentially the same as the Independence Front; however, they did not refrain from occasionally playing nationalist tunes. Workers and smallholding peasants out of conviction, intellectuals out of idealism, civil servants out of fear and opportunism, all augmented the party ranks; the surviving Jews of Budapest joined out of gratitude to their liberators and their search for a new experience of community. Besides boasting an ever-growing influence on its own, the Communist Party was also able to manipulate the other parties of the Left. The Social Democratic Party, whose 350,000 strong membership possessed a powerful working-class consciousness, found it increasingly difficult to resist the call of the Communists for working-class unity. Together with the National Peasant Party, the Social Democrats chose to join the Communists in the Left-Wing Bloc on 5 March 1946, following the elections of the previous November which was won by the Smallholder Party, who collected fifty-seven per cent of the votes, with both the Social Democrats and the Communists polling seventeen per cent each, and the National Peasant Party a mere seven percent.

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‘Forward to Peace & Socialism!’ The Young Pioneers’ Congress.

The elections themselves, by secret ballot and without a census, were the freest ever to be held in Hungary until 1990. Cardinal Mindszenty, the head of the Hungarian Catholic hierarchy, had condemned the ‘Marxist evil’ in a pastoral letter and called upon the faithful to support the Smallholders. Whatever the voters made of this intervention, the verdict of 4.8 million of them, over ninety per cent of the enfranchised, clearly showed their preference for the return of parliamentary democracy based on support for private property and the market economy over socialism with state management and central economic planning. But then the Smallholders gave in to Soviet pressure for the formation of a ‘grand coalition’ in which the communists were able to preserve the gains they had already secured and to secure a firm base from which they were gradually able to bully their way to power by 1949. After the tribulations of the Rákosi dictatorship, it was not surprising that, in 1956, what was initially a struggle between ‘reform’ communists and orthodox within the party, set off by and adjusting to changes in Moscow, and in the meantime itself triggering off a growing ferment among the intelligentsia, became a national anti-Soviet uprising. The events which began, from 20 October onwards, with meetings and demonstrations at the universities in Budapest and the provinces, culminating with a peaceful demonstration in support of Gomulka’s reforms in Poland on 23rd, became a ‘revolution’ when the crowd successfully laid siege to the radio station and fighting began the next day between Soviet tanks and young working-class ‘guerillas’ whom even the restored Prime Minister referred to as ‘counter-revolutionaries’ at this stage.

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All the insurgents agreed about was their desire to return national sovereignty and to put an end to arbitrary rule. They did not call for a reversal of nationalisation or a return to the pre-1945 order.  As fighting continued, by 28 October, Nagy had dropped the label ‘counter-revolution’ and started to talk about a ‘national democratic movement’, acknowledging the revolutionary bodies created during the previous days. The Hungarian Workers’ (Communist) Party was reformed as the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party (MSZMP) and the old coalition parties became active again, including the Social Democrats. After his initial uncertainty, the PM kept pace with developments on the streets, closing the gap between himself and the insurgents step by step. His changes culminated in the formation of a new multi-party cabinet on 2 November, including reform Communist, Social Democrat (Anna Kéthély, below), Smallholder and Peasant Party members.

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However, this consolidation of power by a now avowedly ‘Revolutionary Government’ involved the collapse of the whole system of institutions of the party-state on which the cohesion of the Soviet bloc rested, and this was unacceptable for the Moscow leadership, Khrushchev included. It could not afford to lose a country of Hungary’s strategic location and mineral wealth from among its satellite states. But it was the radicalisation of the revolution in Budapest which made it impossible for a compromise deal to be struck. After announcing the formation of the MSZMP, also declaring himself to be in favour of neutrality and willing to fight in the streets, János Kádár left Parliament on 1 November for the Soviet Embassy. He quickly found himself in Moscow where he became the latest figure selected by the politburo to steer Hungary on a course acceptable to them. Having accepted this assignment, he entered Budapest with his cabinet in Soviet tanks on 7 November.

Although the pockets of armed resistance had been mopped up by 11 November, the most peculiar forms of the revolution, the workers’ councils, started to exert their true impact after 4 November, with an attempt to organise a nationwide network. Initially set up as strike committees, their basic idea was self-management in the factory, owned principally by the workers. On the initiative of the workers’ councils, a massive wave of strikes lasted into January 1957. The intellectuals, rallying mainly in the Writers’ Association, the students’ committees and the Journalists’ Association, founded the Revolutionary Council of the Hungarian Intelligentsia, chaired by composer Zoltán Kodály, which demanded the restoration of the country’s sovereignty and representative government. These movements marked out the Revolution as more than simply a defeated National Uprising. They were clearly socialist in their aims and membership. Kádár, on the other hand, did not have a clear policy to cope with this situation. The government programme which he drafted while still in Moscow, included promises of welfare measures, workers’ self-management and policies to aid the peasantry and small-scale enterprises. But these were clearly not the reasons for his ‘appointment’ by his Moscow patrons. To begin with, he was too busy organising special police forces for the purposes of retaliation and repression to spend time setting out policies. Although he negotiated with the leaders of the Budapest Workers’ Council on 22 November, on the previous day the special police squads prevented the creation of a National Workers’ Council and in early December, two hundred members of the movement were arrested on the same day that saw the abduction of Nagy and his associates.

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The revolutionary committees which had been set up were dissolved, and the police shot dead nearly a hundred demonstrators in Sálgotorján, Miskolc and Eger. The ideological justification for these actions and the continuing repression and the impending campaign of retaliation was created at a party conference which identified the causes of the October Uprising as the mistakes of the Rákosi-Gerő faction on the one hand and, on the other, the undermining of the party by ‘Nagy circle’ leading to a capitalist-feudal counter-revolution of Horthyite fascism… supported by international imperialism. Given the trauma created by the revolution, its repression and the retaliation which followed in 1956-58, it is not surprising that Hungarian society was in the mood for Kádár’s Realsozialismus, based on his personalised creed that the ‘little man’ was interested simply in a decent living, instead of the great political issues of the day. He used the scope created by the ruins of the revolt on which he built his power to buy the complicity of Hungarians by unorthodox methods. In November 1962, Kádár somewhat pompously announced that the foundations of socialism in Hungary had been laid and that the construction of socialism was an all-national task, dependent on co-operation between Communists and non-party members, irrespective of personal convictions. There was to be no ‘class war’; this was what became known as the ‘Kádár doctrine’. These were the foundations of the ‘Hungarian model’, often referred to as ‘Gulyás communism’ in the 1970s, which was a far cry from utopian models. With characteristic persistence, Kádár managed to earn legitimacy, retaining it until it became apparent in the 1980s that Realsozialismus was not a functioning system, but merely ‘the longest path from capitalism to capitalism’.

Conclusion: The End of ‘Class-War’ Socialism?

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

Marx House (Memorial Library) in London.

Marx (before ‘Marxism’) based his theories on a belief that men’s minds are limited by their economic circumstances and that there is a necessary conflict of interests in our present civilization between the prosperous and employing classes of people and the employed masses. With the advance in education necessitated by the mechanical revolution, this great employed majority would become more and more class-conscious and more and more solid in antagonism to the ruling minority. In some way the class-conscious workers would seize power, he prophesied, and inaugurate a new social state. The antagonism, the insurrection, the possible revolution are understandable enough, but it did not follow that a new social state or anything but a socially destructive process would ensue. Marx sought to replace national antagonism by class antagonisms, but it is interesting to see how the two lines of thought, so diverse in spirit, so different in substance as this class-war socialism of the Marxists and the individualistic theory and socialist theory have continued to be part of a common search for more spacious social and political ideas and interpretations. In the long history of socialism in western Europe, as contrasted with the seventy years of Soviet-style Communism, the logic of reality has usually triumphed over the logic of theory.

Sources:

László Kontler (2001), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

H. G. Wells (1922, 1946), A Short History of the World. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

  

Posted April 19, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Austria-Hungary, Baltic States, Britain, British history, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Civilization, Co-operativism, Cold War, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Communism, Conservative Party, Dark Ages, democracy, Discourse Analysis, Economics, Education, Egalitarianism, English Language, eschatology, Ethnicity, European Union, First World War, France, German Reunification, Germany, History, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marxism, Memorial, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, NATO, Oxford, Population, populism, Proletariat, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Remembrance, Revolution, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, USSR, Utopianism

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