New book on 19th century London strike


This video says bout itself:

An exploration of the origins of the Labour Party, told through the story of Keir Hardie, Britain’s first working class MP.

By John Callow in Britain:

Monday 21st April 2014

History is very much worth fighting for and engaging with in the present — as a new book on a previously little-known 19th-century strike eloquently demonstrates, says JOHN CALLOW

Silvertown: The Lost Story Of A Strike That Shook London And Helped Launch The Modern Labour Movement

by John Tully

Lawrence & Wishart, £17.99

JOHN TULLY’S Silvertown: The Lost Story Of A Strike That Shook London And Helped Launch The Modern Labour Movement has a sense of original archival discovery that permits the voices, actions and ideals of long-forgotten working men and women to speak directly to us, in their own way and on their own terms.

It’s a considerable achievement, not least on account of the difficulties inherent in trying to reconstruct the lives and motivations of the silenced majority of Victorian Britain, the wealth creators who were actively prohibited from sharing in their gains and who more often than not had neither the leisure nor the opportunity to record their own thoughts and feelings.

As this book demonstrates, the strikers in 1889 at Silvertown in east London refused to be broken by poverty, ground down by cynicism or cowed by the forces arrayed against them by both their employers and the state.

This determined stance led, swiftly and surely, to the realisation that rights and freedoms — to education, healthcare, meaningful and well-paid work, social and economic justice and dignity in old age — were never going to be freely conceded by the privileged few.

Rather, they would have to be won through concerted, collective action and shared principle on the part of the many whose industry and life blood drove the machines and fed the furnaces of the world’s first industrial nation, the shock-centre of modern capitalism.

As Tully appreciates but many of our politicians would rather forget those early socialist pioneers knew that these liberties, once won, would have to be jealously guarded and forcefully defended, each and every day, against those who would seize them back again or else seek to give them away without a struggle, backwards glance or second thought.

The Gasworkers’ Union — the ancestor of today’s GMB union — was founded upon a big idea.

It sought to represent the underdog, the unskilled worker, and to unequivocally and unapologetically represent class as opposed to sectional interests.

It was serious about redistributing power and wealth from the “haves” to the “have-nots,” appreciative of the risks it ran and of the destruction of earlier general unions and driven by a clearly articulated Marxist vision that found its expression in the guiding objective of the union’s first rule book.

Thus members were called upon to “remember that the interests of all workers are one and a wrong done to any kind of labour is a wrong done to the whole of the working class and that victory or defeat of any portion of the army of labour is a gain or a loss to the whole of that army, which by its organisation and union is marching forward to its ultimate goal — the emancipation of the working class.

That emancipation can only be brought about by the strenuous and united efforts of the working class itself.”

The prescience of this injunction would seem to be borne out in the pages of John Tully’s book, where two main factors are highlighted in the account of the defeat of the strikers.

The first emphasises the sense of unity and ruthless purpose that characterised the board of management at the rubber works, which scorned any form of negotiation or compromise with their workforce.

The board understood with absolute clarity what was at stake for the capitalist system if concessions began to undermine the ability to amass private profit by any means at its disposal.

The second reason for the collapse of the strike lay in the antipathy felt by the older skilled craft unions towards the new general union that sought to represent and to promote unskilled labour.

Tragically, on this occasion, the company directors and shareholders knew better than either the executive of the Amalgamated Society Of Engineers — the precursor of the AEEU — or the London Trades Council that unity really was strength.

This said, the battle was still well worth fighting.

The Silvertown dispute brought Eleanor Marx firmly into contact with both the union and with the women and men of the East End.

It provided her with a new purpose and sense of comradeship and permitted her to combine her own remarkable skills as both office administrator and as street-corner orator.

She appears to have been everywhere, in constant motion and creative symbiosis with her constituency, advising, heartening and finding new ways to feed the strikers and their families.

She acted as a catalyst for the union’s decision to admit women to membership and founded the first women’s branch at Silvertown on October 10 1889, enabling feminist — alongside Marxist — currents to course through every fibre of the new union.

For the next six years, she successfully combined the roles of activist and propagandist — she collected branch donations and dues door-to-door in Silvertown — with the duties of a national trade union official and her position as one of the leading figures within the Second Socialist International.

The union was, for its first decade, deeply influenced by her example and ideals and it was Silvertown which provided the cornerstone for her engagement with it.

In a similar vein, the dispute also set the scene for the first meeting between Will Thorne and Pete Curran and set the seal upon their lasting friendship.

Though his contribution to the formation of the Labour Party is now largely forgotten, Curran drove the political strategy of the union for more than 20 years and was one of the first Labour MPs, serving the Jarrow constituency from 1907-10.

Like many of the early figures in the union’s development — JR Clynes, Jim Connell and Jack Jones — he came from an Irish background and combined the themes of anti-imperialism, opposition to militarism and the Boer war with an overtly Marxist conception of socialism and societal development.

Though neither he nor Eleanor Marx would live to see it, the election of Jack Jones as the union-sponsored MP for Silvertown in 1918 provided a fitting tribute to the sacrifices and dedication of those who had gone on strike a generation earlier and who had first raised the red flag outside the walls of Matthew Gray’s factory.

Tully’s book is as committed, as passionate and as clear-sighted as those pioneers who staked everything they had for the sake of our tomorrow.

It recalls tragedies and injustices but it also encourages us to remember the scope of the labour movement’s advance and the simple, undeclarative heroism that saw unskilled women and men, old and young, with no financial reserves or access to the media and with starvation threatening brave police truncheons, pauperisation and the chill of the cold to wage a strike that lasted some 89 days.

How many more possibilities could be achieved by the unions of today, with full-time officers, legal teams, campaign funds and access to the internet and the press?

In this light, it is to be hoped that Silvertown: The Story Of A Lost Strike gains the widest possible audience, both union and non-union, academic and popular and that the author should be congratulated for his work in recovering this account of our collective past. It is for today’s labour movement to lay its own claim to shaping a progressive future.

Silvertown: The Lost Story Of A Strike That Shook London And Helped Launch The Modern Labour Movement is published by Lawrence & Wishart, price £17.99.

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