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Further background debate following the recent Critique conference in Britain. Some of the arguments for a new working-class party in a number of  European countries draw on an analogy with the struggle to build a workers part in the USA.  Gerry Downing argues this is a poor analogy.

Why is the British working class more class conscious than the American?

Gerry Downing

14 November 2006

In the current debate about the lack of revolutionary consciousness in the British working class it is useful to contrast the class consciousness of the British and American working class. Following Trotsky’s advice the slogan ‘build a Labor party’ has long been accepted in America and various attempts have been made to break the trade unions from the Democrats and build a workers’ party. Few serious socialist would disagree with this tactic, though, of course, how it should be put into practice is controversial; should American unionists try to build a reformist party or should revolutionaries use the slogan as a transitional demand in a conjunctional way to allow the character of the party to be determined in struggle? We would argue the latter, however, as the break with the lib-lab orientation of the trade unions to the Liberal party happened in Britain more that a hundred years ago the task now is to build a revolutionary socialist party to intervene in the existing labour movement and not seek to build our own, new labour movement, a left, real or old version of the Labour party. Moreover even if appropriate this would require a real movement in the working class to succeed, attempts by so-called revolutionaries to don the cloths of reformism in order to gain electoral support presumable with the intention of revealing their nakedness on the eve of the revolution are totally misguided, why should anyone believe them then? We will examine the development of class consciousness in the two nations up to WWII to make the point that those who cannot defend existing gains will never make new ones. The essay is adapted from two Open University essays.

Trade unions were illegal in Britain under the Combination Acts for the first quarter of the nineteenth century. E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class postulates that in this period the working class through its struggles became class conscious; that is they became aware of their own separate interests as a class and the need to fight collectively for that. The overwhelmingly presence of artisans and the working class in the mass demonstrations in 1831-32 in the struggle for the Great Reform Act testifies to this as does Chartism (1839-48), the world’s first truly national mass working class movement which fought for political rights such as adult male suffrage and annual parliaments. However much its detractors might point to the continued popularity of rural nostalgia and liberal radicalism in some of its propaganda it lent a political orientation and mass struggle to Robert Owen’s utopian socialism and feminism and looked forward to a new world. This was the movement that Marx and Engels addressed in their 1848 Communist Manifesto. It had weapons of mass propaganda to assist it in changing attitudes, the mass-produced leaflet and pamphlet and the radical press like the Northern Star and the Poor Man’s Guardian.

In America at the start of that century ‘The possession of some property by almost all white male adults meant that not only few, if any, were poor, but that equally few were rich…’ though this very much changed with the mass Irish, Germans and Chinese immigration at mid-century and the emergence of the robber barons at the end of the century. The native working class and trade unions were patronised during the Civil War, though the new immigrants suffered cruel exploitation from the forties, the Irish and Chinese on the 1860s railway construction for example. Post war the anti-Irish nativist Know Nothings (1854-56) first used the tactic of divide and rule which was to become so detrimental to American trade union organisation. Ira Katznelson in Working class formation… (Studies, p.173) theorises that ‘In the United States… a split consciousness came to divide the working class: as labourers in their work place and as ethnic or residents of this or that territory in their residential community. In England, by contrast, there was no equivalent divided consciousness, nor was class seen as a category of social understanding limited to the realm of work and labour’. She maintains that ‘the differences between these states’ organisation and public policy’ made for ‘the key difference in class formation’ between Britain and America (ibid. p.175). James Holt’s article demonstrates that trade unions were not defeated by lack of militancy but suggests that ‘technical changes (in American industry) had undermined the importance of member’s skills which remained critical in the technically less advanced steel mills of Britain’ (Trade Unionism… Offprints 2, p.15). However these are only partial explanations; the central factor governing changing attitudes to trade unions between Britain and America was surely the fate of crucial industrial disputes and why they were won in Britain and lost in America. 

The central factor governing changing attitudes to trade unions between Britain and America was surely the fate of crucial industrial disputes and why they were won in Britain and lost in America

The Bryant and Mays match girls (1888) and the struggle for the Dockers’ Tanner (1889) disputes were won because a more mature working class had learned the value of solidarity and painful historical lessons on the nature of the state how to fight it. The British lost most of their illusions in the state after the Peterloo massacre in 1819. In the US the Homestead Strike near Pittsburgh in 1892 and other similar disputes like the 1894 strike by the American Railway Union against the Pullman Palace Car Company near Chicago were lost because Carnegie and other magnates commanded huge recourses compared to their British counterparts, national unions were of necessity widely dispersed and the strikers were naive about the nature of the state and its attitude to the strikers. This crucial struggle against Carnegie’s steel mill was enormously violent but had huge public and even establishment press support. The armed strikers seemed to have won when they forced the surrender of the two hundred Pinkerton agents only to concede to the deployment of state troopers in the belief that they had come to support them. Clive Emsley’s Police and Industrial disputes… (Studies, pp. 112-131) points to the reasons for this; local deputy sheriffs often sympathised with strikers whom they knew and to whom they might be related. The egalitarianism of the Constitution and the universal male franchise led to false expectations of the benefits of citizenship and state impartiality. 

We will see how craft unionism affected the developments in both countries and why in Britain the unskilled organized successfully in the big industrial conflicts of the 1890s and why the American attempts largely failed. We will view the organisation of the unskilled as the vital step in developing class consciousness and therefore the key to understanding why the British trade unions successfully built the Labour party and why similar efforts in the US failed. 

We will view the organisation of the unskilled as the vital step in developing class consciousness and therefore the key to understanding why the British trade unions successfully built the Labour party and why similar efforts in the US failed.

The vicious repression used in the post-Russian Revolution Red Scare in America holds the key to understanding why the paths of the two movements diverged so sharply at this point; the British movement also suffered post war reaction but survived in far better shape because of its past gains and because it could fight more successfully on both the industrial and political fronts. 

Britain’s New Model Unions were craft dominated from the demise of Chartism at the end of the 1840s to the revival of the movement by the mobilisation of the unskilled at the start of the successful strike wave of 1889-92. US labour had revived after the civil war but it was localised these unionists were typified by the Irish Catholic-dominated Molly Maguires based in the Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and other coal mines. They wrecked instant and bloody retribution against mine owners and their agents who had treated them badly. The Mollys were crushed and ten leaders hanged in 1877. The US strike wave of 1889-92, almost contemporaneous with the British, ended in crushing defeats. These events highlighted and exasperated the differences between the two movements. Royden Harrison identifies three big differences. Complementing the British unions he lists the Co-Operative movement, Labour Churches, socialist Sunday schools and working men’s clubs as constituent parts of the labour movement. The lack of such auxiliary institutions in America meant setbacks and defeats were far more costly to it. The second difference identified by Harrison is that the British TUC ‘survived all the struggles between the old trade unionists, representing a privileged stratum of skilled workers and the bold new unionists enrolled under Kier Hardy for the eight hour day and the Socialist Commonwealth’. The American movement did not develop a single, integrated leading centre which encompassed all the diverse strands within the trade unions until after WWII.

The Taff Vale judgement of 1901, which made striking effective illegal, whilst depressing the level of strikes, did not deal a crushing blow to the British trade unions but turned them towards political solutions. The unions flocked to join the Labour Representation Committee and the 1906 general election saw 54 Labour MPs returned. They founded the Labour party, the third difference identified by Harrison. Campbell-Bannerman, the new Liberal Prime minister, was obliged by the pledges given by his MPs during the campaign and mass pressure to enact the TUC’s own Trade Disputes Bill. This ensured that trade unions could not be sued for damages caused during a strike, which immunity lasted until 1971. In the US there was no such legal protection; a hostile judiciary handed out injunctions against them at will. Strike breaking agencies like the Pinkertons were supplemented by company police forces and by state and federal troopers who could and did shoot to kill if the unions looked like succeeding. The American labour movement’s political achievements peaked in 1912. Although Eugene V. Debs also got almost a million votes for the Socialist party in 1920 whilst in jail for opposing the war, it was from a much bigger electorate. But to what extent he could be said to represent the movement is questionable, following his departure from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, 1905 – c1925) in 1908 and his rejection of, and by, the AFL. 

The Knights of Labor (1869 – c1900), claiming 702,000 members in 1886 and the IWW, who claimed 100,000 members in 1923, were really militant trade unions. However they were fundamentally different from the British labour movement. The Knights and the IWW were anarcho-syndicalist politically, that is they held to those theories of the rights of the individual peculiar to the nobility-dominated rural societies of Italy, Spain and Russia and the anti-political syndicalist ideas developed in France, which sought to overthrow capitalism by strikes and sabotage and replace it with trade union structures. They sought only localised workers’ control of factories and regions with no real idea of what the Co-operative Commonwealth might be or how it might function, especially after the IWW split with their most political members led by Daniel DeLeon and Debs in 1908. Charges of unamericanism were commonly used against them. Both were ultra-left critics of Samuel Gompers’s AFL (1886) and scorned the task of fighting within the AFL. This thoroughly confusing and directionless half-way ideology was mediated through rural populism.  It directed much of its work at black Southern share croppers, the ‘timber beasts’ of the logging camps of the Northwest and Southern Appalachians and the increasingly marginalised small farmers of the Midwest. It inevitably folded before severe repression. It was typified by William J Bryan, whose famous ‘Cross of Gold’ speech to the Democratic Convention of 1896 was the purest of demagogic humbuggery.

The British Labour party was always reformist, it sought a ‘brotherhood of man’ socialism which blurred if not eliminated class lines. Its strongest influence was the old Methodist egalitarianism that reduced the class struggle to moral issues. But it was, and still is, a living contradiction, a bourgeois-workers party in Lenin’s famous analysis, capitalist at the top but uniquely built by and organically tied to the trade unions and so susceptible to pressure from its working class base. The Knights and the IWW had organized women, blacks and the unskilled and were egalitarian in outlook. Gompers’s AFL increasing allowed discrimination against women, blacks and the unskilled and became the bastion of elitist craft unionism. 

Serious WWI labour shortages enormously increased the bargaining power of the British trade unions. War-time collaboration by the likes of Henderson, the first Labour cabinet member, was bought at the price of increased participation of the trade unions in the production processes, which became far more centrally controlled and planned. The extremely high British death rates in the trenches killed off the high spirited patriotic enthusiasm with which Britons went to war. The length of involvement meant that this advantage had sufficient time to be institutionalised in the structures of the unions, enhancing the power of the shop floor relative to the top trade union bureaucracy. Pre-war American labour was far more migratory, being composed largely of immigrants who often sought to earn enough to return home and buy a plot or others who sought to buy property in the US; the spirit of individualism lived on based on perceived prospects of upward mobility still seen as greater than anywhere else in the world at the time (the American dream) so many were not interested in strikes which might only benefit them in the long term whereas self-help for the British working class meant ‘the friendly society, the trade union and the co-op’, according to Harrison. US Labour was subjected to far greater and more rapid technological changes and it entered war-time production at a lower level of organisation and with the craft-dominated AFL far more hostile than the TUC to organising the unskilled on an industrial basis. See Harry Quelch’s Evidence to the Royal Commission on Labour, 1892. This makes it clear that many employers accepted the closed shop even then; this strength was undreamt of in America.

The American Constitution was designed to supply a permanent defence for individual liberty against popular enthusiasm and personal dictatorship. The splitting of the sovereignty did not especially interfere with the purpose of a conservative party but to a party of social and industrial reforms it offers a disheartening obstacle. In the US not one but fifty separate campaigns must be waged to enact progressive legislation and then the President may veto it or the ‘nine old men’ of the Supreme Court (state of federal) may just find it unconstitutional. The late entry of the US to the war in 1917 and its relatively rapid conclusion meant that anti-German hysteria and anti-union propaganda (the enemy within, fifth columnists, etc) were combined under the banner of patriotism and there was not the great slaughter of American soldiers to enable wider layers of the population to see through this and at least sympathise with American labour – always a minority, unlike in Britain. Anti-Kaiser hysteria quickly became anti-Bolshevik against labour and all immigrants in the post-war strike wave. The biggest of these massive confrontations was the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921 in the southern West Virginia coalfields where up to 15,000 miners and strike-breakers fought with guns for ten day in the largest battle since the Civil War. This was US labour’s biggest ever confrontation. Both the police chief and the mayor of the little rail town of Matewan in Mingo County were killed fighting on the side of the miners.

Immigration tailed off due to war-time disruption from 1914 and post war isolationist legislation encouraged blacks from the south to migrate northwards in increasing numbers, about a million by 1930. They sought work in the northern factories, mines and mills, leading to charges of undercutting pay rates won by white workers. Worse; when walkouts left the factories and mines idle, blacks were recruited as strike breakers, leading to the worst race riots in US history in the Red Scare year of 1919. ‘The scale of the (race) violence deserves emphasis: in both Tulsa and East St Louis black sections of the city were virtually eliminated’ (Jenkins, p.206). The revived Ku Klux Klan, who were ‘between four and eight million strong by 1924’ led these riots (Jenkins, p.211). As well as southern bigots many of the new movement were urban Protestant white workers from the mid-west and up to Maine. Lynchings of blacks were down from over a hundred a year at the start of the century but was still running at between fifty and sixty in these years (Time Line of African American History, 1901-1925). The Klan supported Prohibition and motherhood, opposed divorce, Catholics, Jews, blacks and all immigrants. This could not but have a crippling effect on the trade unions. It destroyed the electoral prospects of the US Socialist party. 

Post war saw big set-backs for British labour; after the 1919 humiliation one disaster after another followed culminating in the defeat of the General Strike in 1926 and the fiasco of the Ramsey McDonald 1929 government, who sold out the movement so spectacularly in the formation of the National Government of 1931. Wage and welfare cuts to preserve the gold standard and the split in the Labour party left the movement on its knees until it revived after 1936. In the US the Great Depression following the Crash of 1929 ushered in Roosevelt’s New Deal politics (1933-37). This revived the America Labour movement primarily because the National Labour Relations Act of 1935 decreed that employers had to allow collective bargaining. The Teamsters union successfully fought two long strikes in 1934 led by Trotskyists in Minneapolis which eventually unionised truckers throughout America. ‘Within the framework of the…AF of L our Local (574) has evolved methods of organisation and forms of activity which go far beyond the traditional craft-union methods and ideas’ proclaimed the Daily Strike Bulletin of 18 August 1934 (James P Cannon, Notebook of an Agitator, p.90). Significantly these methods involved the mobilisation of the wives of the strikers and whole communities, learned from recent strikes in the coalfields. The Flint strike against General Motors in 1936-7 led by the UAW was the turning point in organising the unskilled across craft lines in the US; a half a million work days were lost that year in sit-down strikes. Union membership in America almost doubled between 1936 and 1937 (Documents 2, pp.49-52). Encouraged by the revival of the American movement and the heroic resistance to Franco in Spain in 1936 the famous Battle of Cable Street took place. This was the most important successful confrontation between the British labour movement and the state pre-war. Up to 300,000 anti-fascists prevented 10,000 police from opening a path for 3,000 fascists to enter the East End to attack the Jewish shops and homes in the area (Price and Sullivan, Workers News, March-April 1994). How far from the US race riots of 1919!

We can recall Ira Katznelson comments about the split consciousness of the US working class. This was indeed the crucial difference between the movements which led to all the other manifestations of differences, outlined above. It was the central debilitating issue for the craft-orientated AFL and this dreadful backwardness contributed to the growth of the Ku Klux Klan, and the huge race riots that destroyed the post WWI strike wave in the US. The CIO’s industrial unionism was successful pre WWII but by permission of the government in many ways and the movement was quickly ‘reamericanised’ after WWII; the British movement revived itself. Though there was anti-Irish and anti-Semitic racism in Britain in this period nevertheless, the Irish tended to join unions as they settled and became the most militant leaders, so they were an asset to rather than a dividing factor in them. The British labour movement protected the Jews in 1936 and has always successfully fought racism within its own ranks. This egalitarianism, inherited from earlier radicals like the Diggers, Levellers and Chartists, has endured in the British body politic. In America there is always a new ‘other’ (Muslims and Latino immigrants today) to bolster a divisive patriotic/racist consensus, so detrimental to the American Labour movement. Jack London was a racist as well as a (white!) socialist. His famous definition of a scab in 1903 ends; ‘Esau was a traitor to himself, Judas Iscariot was a traitor to his Lord, Benedict Arnold was a traitor to his country. A strike breaker is a traitor to his god, his country, his family and the working class’. Note the quintessentially American priorities; no serious British socialist would have seen things in that way even then. We really do need to appreciate what the British working class has won historically in order to advance and not allow our frustrations at Blair’s New Labour to lead us into an adventure which writes them off.


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