A review of Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-14, Ralph Darlington (Pluto, 2023), £19.99
“There has never before been a series of three consecutive years marked as a whole by such widespread industrial unrest”.1
This comment from Labour Gazette demonstrates the importance of the “Labour Revolt” in Britain between 1910 and 1914. During this time, the annual average strike rate in Britain and Ireland was four times greater than the previous decade.2 Often, in strategically important industries such as mining, railways and docks, this wave of industrial action threatened the basic fabric of the economy and challenged the power of the Liberal Party government.3 Although not unique—there were strikes and civil unrest in Italy, Spain, the United States, Australia and Russia during the same period—Britain’s Labour Revolt lasted longer and involved several distinctive features. First, there was the breadth of action, which included: regional strikes in the South Wales coalfields in 1910-11; national strikes among seamen, dockers and railway workers strikes in the same period; city-wide general transport strikes in Liverpool and London; and a national miners’ strike in 1912. In 1913, there was also a series of metalworkers’ strikes involving women in the West Midlands as well as the lockout of workers from the transport network, the Irish Independent newspaper and the Jacob’s biscuit factory in Dublin. This became one of the most important struggles of the Labour Revolt, with the fight for solidarity with the Irish workers being carried into the centre of the British workers’ movement.4 In 1914, a myriad of local disputes occurred, with more than 4,600 strikes over wages, working conditions, collective bargaining and union recognition.5 The impact of the first national rail strike in August 1911 led to the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants formally adopting the syndicalist objective of workers’ control over industry at its 1912 annual general meeting and the subsequent creation of the National Union of Railwaymen in 1913. The national miners’ strike in 1912 established the principle of a minimum wage. The suffragettes’ Votes for Women newspaper noted:
The miners, in 14 short days, have brought the government to legislation-point, whereas women have, in nearly 50 years of agitation, failed to achieve as much. Why is this? The reason obviously is that the miners’ methods have been more effective.6
Second, many of the strikes began as unofficial action by semi-skilled or unskilled workers and often took place in unorganised workplaces, with both young people and women playing a prominent role. The strikes gave birth to huge mass meetings, strike committees and militant picket lines. Demonstrations, rioting and street fighting involved the wider working-class community to prevent police and troops from breaking them.
Third, successful action in one industry frequently had a “domino effect”, with neighbouring workplaces engaging in “sympathetic” strike action on a large scale for the first time in British history. Moreover, the Labour Revolt led to a massive growth in union membership, with a 62 percent increase from 2.5 million members in 1910 to 4.1 million members by 1914.7 In summary, it was “one of the most sustained, dramatic and violent explosions of industrial militancy and social conflict in Britain after the 20 years of relative quiescence” that had followed the employers’ offensive against the gains accomplished by New Unionism—the late 19th century unskilled and semi-skilled workers’ organising movement—in the strike wave of 1888-91.8
Despite these achievements, there are only three full-length books on the 1910-14 strike wave: George Askwith’s Industrial Problems and Disputes (1920), George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-14 (1935) and Robert Holton’s British Syndicalism 1900-1914: Myths and Realities (1976).9 Ralph Darlington’s new book, Labour Revolt in Britain 1910-1914, sets out to address the shortfalls of this literature, making use of new archival evidence, left-wing publications and the personal reflections of a range of participants. He provides a revolutionary Marxist assessment of one of the most important periods in British trade union history, according proper recognition to the scale of militant union activity, the development of the strike wave, and the rank and file dynamic within it.
Much of the existing literature on the Labour Revolt overstates its “spontaneous” nature and underestimates the extent of political radicalisation and the leadership role played by radical left organisations. Darlington, however, gives these factors full consideration, emphasising the self-activity of the working class and the vision of socialism from below, comparing it to the socialism from above advocated by the Labour Party and union leaders. He stresses the contradictory nature of trade unionism, which both expresses and contains working-class resistance to capitalism, and he analyses the impact of syndicalist and socialist ideas on workers, focusing on the relationship of these ideas to the industrial struggles.10
The book outlines the novel aspects of the Labour Revolt, such as the “sympathetic strikes” that spread from dock labourers in the Port of London to female factory workers in Bermondsey, South East London in 1911. In 1912, this contagion reached London’s West End tailors and tailoresses and then the predominantly unorganised Jewish migrant tailors from Eastern Europe who worked in the East End. Darlington notes the generational shift that occurred as young, female, unskilled and semi-skilled workers, unhindered by the pessimism inculcated in older workers by previous struggles, came to the fore and displayed a combativity unseen since the New Unionism movement.
Darlington details how the Labour Revolt represented one element in a triple crisis for the Liberal government and how it made common cause with the other two: the movements for Irish independence and women’s suffrage. This solidarity eroded religious and gender barriers—although ultimately the divisions remained once the government defused the situation. Darlington also charts the growing popularity of syndicalist, socialist and Marxist ideas, which were advocated by union leaders and political figures such as Tom Mann, Jim Larkin, James Connolly and John Maclean. He looks at radical left-wing organisations such as the Independent Labour Party, the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, the Social Democratic Federation (which became the British Socialist Party in 1911) and the Socialist Labour Party, analysing their role in encouraging and spreading militant industrial action and radical ideas. This is set against growing disaffection with the newly formed Labour Representation Committee and the Labour Party’s elected MPs, whose gradualist and parliamentary approach to social reform jarred with the militancy and focus on industrial action adopted by many working-class activists.
This is a meticulously researched book, and statistics and archival material from a wide range of sources are used to validate Darlington’s arguments. A series of tables at the end of the book detail the number of strikes by industry, the reasons behind them and, crucially, their outcomes. Between 1911 and 1914, 27 percent of strikes ended in a manner favourable to the workers. If one adds the percentage of strikes that ended in a compromise between employers and workers (44 percent), this means 71 percent of strikes during the Labour Revolt ended in victory or with concessions.11
Causes, context and the influence of the left
The book begins with the causes of the Labour Revolt, which Darlington situates within specific economic, industrial, social and political circumstances. These developed into a broader zeitgeist of defiance in the context of the militancy of the women’s suffrage campaign and escalating conflict in Ireland due to the 1912 Home Rule Bill. British capitalism went from being the “workshop of the world” at the start of the 20th century to soon trailing behind the US and Germany. Employers responded by cutting costs, relentlessly speeding up production and intensifying exploitation, which resulted in deskilling and a real-terms decline in wages, creating a mass of semi-skilled and unskilled workers.12 Strikes over pay, working conditions and job control grew, with workers in well organised industries raising grievances about the constraints of collective bargaining while non-organised areas demanded union recognition.
Detailing the industrial context, Darlington describes the “lockouts” in the cotton, coal and engineering sectors and the 1901 Taff Vale legislation, which gave employers the right to sue unions for damages caused by strikes.13 Yet, the period prior to the Labour Revolt was mostly one of relative industrial peace, with the 1906 Trade Dispute Act legalising trade union activities. An advanced system of collective bargaining was developing, even if many unskilled and unorganised workers were excluded from it.
However, the accompanying creation of a body of full-time union officials, who were reluctant to jeopardise relations with the employers and their unions’ financial stability by calling strike action, produced distrust among rank and file members.14 These developments coincided with growing dissatisfaction about the perceived ineffectiveness of parliamentary politics in bringing meaningful change. Low wages persisted for many, and millions of women workers were exempt from the protections offered to the sick and unemployed by the 1911 National Insurance Act. Moreover, it was not only women who could not vote; residence qualifications and other exclusions debarred 42 percent of adult men from suffrage in 1911. Industrial action became an increasingly attractive option among these predominantly young, unskilled and unmarried men who had been excluded from voting.15 The growing resentment towards the Labour Party, fed by its subordination of its socialist policies to its electoral objectives, intensified a preference for direct action over parliamentarianism. Successful strike action by seamen, dockers, miners and railwaymen strengthened confidence in fighting collectively to win, and the new form of “sympathetic strike” drew in workers beyond the official trade union network, weakening sectional divides and increasing the pressure on employers. A new layer of grassroots workplace militants emerged, challenging both their employers and the conservative trade union leaders.
Encouragement from left-wing activists generalised specific economic grievances into broader class-wide political concerns, providing cohesion to the movement. A leadership role was played by key syndicalist trade union leaders such as Tom Mann, who launched the Industrial Syndicalist Education League and was chair of the 1911 Liverpool transport strike committee. Another key figure was Noah Ablett, editor of the Plebs’ Magazine and a central figure in the 1910-11 South Wales miners’ strike.16 There were also important socialist trade union figures such as Larkin, who led the 1907 Belfast dockers’ strike that united protestant and catholic workers and founded the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1908. Larkin also led the Dublin Lockout of 1913-14, launching a “fiery cross” campaign for solidarity action from the British labour movement. Marxists such as Connolly, who helped to form the Socialist Labour Party, was also a central figure in the Dublin Lockout and the head of the Irish Citizen Army, a small paramilitary force that aimed to defend workers’ protests from the Dublin Metropolitan Police.17 Connolly explained the sympathetic strike as a “recognition by the working class of its essential unity—the manifestation in our daily industrial relations that our brother’s fight is our fight, that our sisters’ troubles are our troubles”.18 The ideological and organisational influence of this set of radical figures within a number of unions, as well as the emergence of the unofficial rank and file Amalgamation Committee movement, popularised the campaign for revolutionary industrial unionism to overthrow capitalism, in stark contrast to the class collaboration of the official union leaders. However, the ready reception of syndicalist and socialist ideas among rank and file trade unionists was a response to growing labour unrest rather than a cause of it.
The cross-communal unity advocated by Connolly was one example of the scale of the political challenge to the Liberal Party government, which was confronted with the dangers posed by the escalating conflict in Ireland and the militancy of the women’s suffrage campaign. Both movements continued throughout the Labour Revolt. The Women’s Social and Political Union and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies involved thousands of women in their campaigns of civil disobedience, which included physically attacking government ministers. These women were met with a brutal response from the authorities, including imprisonment of many and the force feeding of those on hunger strike. Unfortunately, insufficient unity of purpose to defeat the government existed between the women’s, Irish and workers’ movements, even though organisations such as Sylvia Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes showed the potential to link the fight for the vote with the wider class struggle.19 In any case, the combined impact of the three struggles undermined key characteristics of “liberal England”: moderation, compromise and social harmony.20
Rank and file dynamics
Many successful strikes were initiated by rank and file trade unionists, as Darlington demonstrates with a chronological overview of the key national and regional battles and a geographical survey of the diversity of these struggles. For example, the largely unorganised women in the chainmaking industry in the Black Country region launched a series of strikes between August and October 1910 over the implementation of the 1909 Trade Boards Act’s minimum rates of pay. They managed to raise some £4,000 (the equivalent of an enormous £482,000 today) from solidarity collections.21 Another example was the South Wales miners at the Ely colliery in the Rhondda Valley who took action in opposition to mine owners reducing the rate of pay for working on dangerous seams. The action came from below, but the moderate South Wales Miners Federation was forced to make the strike official, and this generalised the campaign into a demand for a national minimum wage, which was won through a national strike in 1912.22
George Askwith, the government’s chief industrial commissioner, described unofficial action by waterfront workers in summer 1911:
In almost every port, the movement started with unorganised men, generally young men. The labour leaders were taken by surprise. Some quickly headed the movement and tried to regain lost authority. Others frankly expressed astonishment and could not understand the outbreak and the determination…as new men came to the front.23
These workers quickly joined a union, transforming the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union and the National Union of Dock Labourers into major presences in many ports.24
Rank and file rebellions ensured there could be no return to work until employers implemented major concessions on pay, recognition and closed shop agreements. Workers engaged in mass picketing and militant demonstrations, meeting police baton charges with rioting. A town councillor who had been present when French workers rose up during the Paris Commune in 1871 commented that he “had never seen anything like this” and had “not known that there were such people in Hull”.25 Unofficial strike action remained popular even after defeats such as the 1912 London transport strike, with building workers in the city participating in 48 unofficial strikes between May 1913 and January 1914.26
The diversity of strikes covered in Darlington’s book is impressive. I particularly enjoyed reading about the carnival atmosphere present in many strikes among women workers. One example is the net curtain workers’ dispute in Kilbirnie, North Ayrshire, where the whole town turned out to greet four women strikers found guilty by a court of intimidating scabs.27 The droves of young workers who joined the strike movement even included large numbers of golf caddie boys, aged between 12 and 16 years, who struck across the country in August 1911. In the same month, some 3,000 engineering apprentices in Leeds also struck. In September 1911, a wave of school student strikes took place against corporal punishment, the length of the school day and huge class sizes. Pupils as young as 6, 7 and 8 years old were part of the school strikes in Bermondsey. Many schoolchildren had previously joined mass pickets and street protests to support their parents’ and older siblings’ strikes in the docks, railways and mines. Now, they organised flying pickets, strike committees and mass meetings, marching with painted banners and placards.28
In a later section, Darlington analyses how rank and file pressure repeatedly forced union executives to ballot workers, make action official and build solidarity. Indeed, even the bureaucratic Trades Union Congress was compelled to encourage financial support for the 1913 Dublin Lockout with around £150,000 (the equivalent of £18 million in today’s money) raised, although it refused to call a sympathetic strike. Nevertheless, unofficial sympathy action by railway workers in eight cities took place in September 1913, and there was official action by railway workers and miners in Wales in December 1913.29 During the Labour Revolt, mass meetings of thousands democratised the strike movement, encouraging collective decision making. During the 1911 transport workers’ strikes, a system of “permits” controlling the movement of goods was developed by joint strike committees—embryonic organs of alternative, working-class power that were previously unseen in Britain.30 Massive increases in membership transformed the unions, and a “unions as movement”, rather than a “unions as institutions”, dynamic developed. There was also the creation of other new forms of organisation such as the so-called Triple Alliance between mine, railway and transport unions, which was formed in April 1914.
The scale of the movement increased class consciousness, with workers quickly learning to mirror the organisation and centralisation of the bosses and government, who increasingly dispatched police and troops to defeat strikers. In August 1911, for instance, railwaymen braved what was effectively martial law in many areas during their first national strike, with soldiers killing two strikers in South Wales.31 Despite the bloodshed, the outcome of negotiations between the railway unions, the employers and the government resulted only in a royal commission and no pay increase.32 A growing awareness of the limits imposed by union officialdom led militants to support new initiatives such as the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, but these failed to become sufficiently widespread to be effective. Instead, established union leaders were often able to control how disputes ended.33 Structural divisions within the working class persisted—over 90 percent of union membership was male in 1914.34 Sectarian divisions also remained in cities such as Liverpool, and there were racist attacks on Chinese businesses during transport strikes in Cardiff.35
Even left-wing union leaders found themselves challenged by the grassroots, reflecting the contradictory nature of their position. These contradictions were personified by Ben Tillett, the general secretary of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Workers’ Union. He spoke of the need for social revolution; yet, notably, he also proposed a motion at a special conference of the Trades Union Congress in December 1913 to condemn Larkin for attacking British union leaders and advocating sympathetic strikes in solidarity with the Dublin Lockout. This was despite Tillett having shared “fiery cross” platforms with Larkin many times.36 Such episodes illustrated the weaknesses of syndicalism, which saw bureaucratic officialdom as a tendency rather than a structural feature of union organisation under capitalism. This meant viewing it as surmountable through a change in the organisational form of the unions via amalgamation. However, the 1913 National Union of Railwaymen amalgamation, which fused together three existing railway unions, created a union as willing to compromise as its predecessors. Likewise, the Triple Alliance of 1914, which was viewed by syndicalists as a revolutionary weapon to overthrow capitalism through the general strike, actually held an appeal for moderate union leaders because it allowed the development of common demands and a common timetable to win concessions without needing strike action, let alone a general strike.37 Moreover, syndicalist antipathy to the institution of leadership—motivated by the belief that it stifled the independence and initiative of the rank and file—produced other weaknesses. The leadership provided by syndicalism was decentralised, localised and diffuse, lacking an emphasis on “developing a revolutionary combat organisation or a coherently formulated and unified body of socialist theory and political strategy”.38
Political radicalisation and the radical left
At various points throughout the Labour Revolt, the employers and Liberal Party government feared its perceived revolutionary potential. Even left-wing commentators spoke in such terms; in 1912, for instance, the Fabian socialist H G Wells wrote of an “opening phase of a real and irreparable class war…for which the word ‘revolutionary’ is only too faithfully appropriate”.39 In summer 1914, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the founders of the Fabian Society, talked of an “almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic individual disputes” when strikes took place among 12,000 munitions workers at the Woolwich Arsenal, part of the British Army, and 150,000 miners in South Yorkshire. Only the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 put an end to these strikes.40 Darlington concludes that, although the strikes went beyond economic concerns and voiced grievances about managerial control and deskilling—as well as articulating notions of fairness and injustice—they were not in themselves revolutionary. A political radicalisation did occur, as demonstrated by the extent of solidarity, the increased readership of left-wing newspapers such as the Daily Herald and the rising membership of radical left-wing organisations. However, the dimensions of this radicalisation are hard to confirm empirically because systematic evidence of the level of working-class consciousness in this period is unavailable.41 Indeed, it is necessary to maintain a sense of perspective. Yes, the Labour Revolt involved millions of workers at its height, transforming the balance of class forces and winning wage increases of up to 50 percent.42 Yet, three quarters of workers were still not unionised in 1914, and only 8 percent of the female workforce were union members.43
The last part of the book considers the debates that took place within Labourism and radical left-wing organisations about the relationship between the industrial and political arenas. Kier Hardie of the Independent Labour Party, for example, though often on the side of striking workers, viewed strikes as at best “palliative” (that is, relieving the symptoms rather than dealing with the cause) as compared with the potentially revolutionary sphere of parliamentary politics.44
The Social Democratic Federation (SDP; called the Social Democratic Party from 1908 and the British Socialist Party from 1911) mirrored this approach, conceiving the revolutionary social transformation as coming through an elected socialist party capturing the existing machinery of government. It viewed unions as merely achieving limited, temporary gains for workers. Moreover, the SDP leadership backed union leaders such as Mann and Tillett, rather than the supposedly “misguided” militancy of the rank and file. The political development of SDF member John Maclean was a step forward; he became convinced of the politicising effect of strikes by his involvement in a series of important strikes, arguing that industrial action revealed to workers the true nature of capitalism. Nonetheless, the “gradualist Marxism” of the old SDF leadership prevailed, impairing their ability to provide practical, coordinated leadership to the strikes. Grassroots members ended up joining the Industrial Syndicalist Education League.
By contrast, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) prioritised industrial struggles to the detriment of political action, but it also opposed the existing class collaborationist trade union leaderships. Instead, it argued for new, pure and revolutionary industrial unions—a sectarian non-starter, except for some fleeting success with the Singer factory strike at Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire in March and April 1911.45 Connolly, a leading member of the SLP between 1903 and 1907, advanced the idea that industrial unity would lead to the political unity of the working class. The framework of a future industrial republic would be built up within the shell of capitalism, with the seizure of political power by workers being dependent on their prior conquest of economic power. In reality, however, spontaneous industrial struggles failed to automatically overcome political divisions within the working class and transform workers’ consciousness in a revolutionary direction.46
Similarly, the Industrial Syndicalist Education League saw the road to working-class liberation as lying in an intensification of strike action, which would culminate in a revolutionary general strike to overthrow capitalist society. Again, this subordinated political action to industrial struggle. In practice, therefore, syndicalism failed to explicitly challenge religious sectarianism, for example, during the 1911 Liverpool transport strike. Moreover, it dismissed the campaign for women’s suffrage, arguing that the vote was of as little use for women as it was for men. This meant that it was unable to offer a consistent political and organisational alternative to reformist organisation such as the nascent Labour Party.
Despite these shortcomings, the radical left made significant progress between 1910 and 1914. Still, its sway was lessened by a tendency to reflect the traditional distinction between economics and politics, creating a leadership vacuum that was filled by reformist union leaders and those in charge of the Labour Party.47
The book closes with a section on the reignition of the strike movement in 1917 and 1918. The Labour Revolt was suppressed by the outbreak of war in 1914, but it then resurfaced under wartime conditions, with strikes illegal in many industries. This altered the radical left’s position on the relationship between socialist politics and industrial militancy, opening the way for the creation of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. Darlington discusses the birth of the Shop Stewards’ and Workers’ Committee Movement, modelled on the Clydeside Workers’ Committee, which called for the revolutionary goals of workers’ control over production and the abolition of capitalism. Inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Shop Stewards’ Movement increasingly viewed workers’ committees as embryonic “soviets”.48
The past year in Britain has seen a renewal of strikes after a hiatus of more than 30 years in some sectors. Some workers have struck for the first time, with successful local action by several unions. In this context, this book offers an indispensable account of a key period in British labour history. Moreover, it provides crucial lessons on the importance of workers’ self-activity and organisation, both industrially and politically, highlighting how the radical left’s relationship to struggles affects the development of revolutionary ideas among the most militant workers.
Jacqui Freeman works in the NHS and is a member of the editorial board of International Socialism.
1 Darlington, 2023, p58.
2 Darlington, 2023, pp58-59. This period is better known as the “Great Unrest” or the “Great Labour Unrest”. However, Ralph Darlington argues that “the strike wave deserves to be termed a ‘Labour Revolt’” due to “its characteristic features of unofficial rank and file insurgency, solidarity action, defiance of trade union and Labour Party leaders, violent social confrontations, and challenge to the Edwardian economic and political system”—Darlington, 2023, p23.
3 Darlington, 2023, p58.
4 Darlington, 2023, p171.
5 Darlington, 2023, p1.
6 Votes for Women (22 March 1912). Quoted in Darlington, 2023, p125.
7 Darlington, 2023, p3.
8 Darlington, 2023, p279.
9 See Askwith, 1974; Dangerfield, 2011; Holton, 1976. Still, a number of books exist on the broader labour movement and politics of Edwardian England, and there are also briefer journal articles and book chapters on the Labour Revolt. There are also special issues of two journals, Historical Studies in Industrial Relations in 2012 and Labour History Review in 2014, which celebrate the centenary of the Labour Revolt—see Darlington, 2023, p8.
10 Darlington, 2023, p9.
11 Darlington, 2023, p291. Quoting Knowles, 1952.
12 Darlington, 2023, pp13-14.
13 Darlington, 2023, p17.
14 Darlington, 2023, p20—quoting Orage and Hobson, 1914. Some of the smaller unions had a closer relationship with rank and file members. For example, Mary Macarthur of the National Federation of Women Workers and Julia Varley of the Workers’ Union led unionisation drives—Darlington, 2023, p33.
15 Darlington, 2023, p22.
16 Darlington, 2023, p33 and p284.
17 Darlington, 2023, pp280-284.
18 Quoted in Darlington, 2023, p220. The original text is from Connolly, 1915.
19 Darlington, 2023, pp35-38.
20 Darlington, 2023, p38.
21 Darlington, 2023, pp64-67.
22 Darlington, 2023, pp67-76
23 Askwith, 1974. Quoted in Darlington, 2023, p92.
24 Darlington, 2023, p81.
25 Darlington, 2023, pp84-85.
26 Darlington, 2023, p182.
27 Darlington, 2023, pp159-160.
28 Darlington, 2023, pp167-169.
29 Darlington, 2023, pp176-177.
30 Darlington, 2023, p214.
31 Darlington, 2023, pp97-111.
32 Darlington, 2023, pp111-114.
33 Darlington, 2023, pp184-185.
34 Darlington, 2023, p156.
35 Darlington, 2023, p90.
36 Darlington, 2023, p179.
37 Darlington, 2023, p206.
38 Darlington, 2023, p210.
39 Darlington, 2023, p229.
40 Darlington, 2023, p171.
41 Darlington, 2023, pp241-246.
42 A 50 percent pay increase was achieved by women who participated in the strike among High Wycombe furniture workers between October 1913 and February 1914. See Heath, 2013; Darlington, 2023, p156.
43 Darlington, 2023, p226.
44 Darlington, 2023, p254.
45 Darlington, 2023, pp148-150.
46 Darlington, 2023, pp265-266.
47 Darlington 2023 pp266-270
48 Darlington 2023 pp275-278