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Cutting history to fit a model

On Eric Blanc and the lessons of the British Labour Party


“The process of class formation is always and everywhere difficult. In no way does it resemble a victory march.”—Michelle Perrot 1

In the ongoing search for a historical precedent for the “Dirty Break” model for socialists entering the Democratic Party via its primaries in order to leave it, Eric Blanc has proposed the birth of the British Labour Party as a source of “lessons from the international example most similar to our own.” This raises a number of questions for socialists in the United States. First, does Blanc’s representation of a more or less continuous journey of working-class representatives from trade unionism through the Liberal Party on to the Labour Party present an accurate portrayal of the processes of political class formation? Or is it, as E. P. Thompson said of some of his New Left comrades in the 1960s, an effort “to cut history to fit a model”? Second, and more importantly, just what if anything about the birth of the British Labour Party or the organizations involved in it actually contains applicable precedents or lessons for socialists in the United States today? Third, does any of this fit with what appears to be Blanc’s more recent take on “Dirty break propagandism”?

Class Formation, the Liberal Party, and Socialism in Nineteenth Century Britain

Working class formation is a contradictory process. Class formation arises “at the intersection of determination and self-activity.” This process involves the interaction of the changing material growth of the class; conflicting developments in organization, consciousness, and politics; setbacks and defeats, sometimes of historic proportions; missteps as well as advances, all in relation to similarly complex developments in the capitalist class and other intermediate social formations. In the case of Britain, this involved among other things the contradictory relationship in which capital on the rise in the nineteenth century came to politically represent both the exploiters of labor and simultaneously sections of the working class through the Liberal Party for a time.

To grasp the significance of the political dependence of the growing and changing working class on the Liberal Party we need to understand both the relative conservatism of the working class and the class and political content of Liberalism in the formative period from 1850 to 1900. There were three elements crucial to understanding the history of class formation in Mid-Victorian Britain: the state of the socialist movement; the nature of the Liberal Party and the Lib-Lab phenomenon; and the recurrent upsurges of class conflict that shaped organizational and political development more profoundly than the electoral maneuvers leading to the foundation of the Labour Party.

First was the absence of a socialist movement or even of a significant number of socialists in the years 1850–80, which one historian has described as “The Blank on English Socialism.”2 This was due mainly to the collapse of Chartism and its mass organizations in the 1840s and the failure and violent suppression of the European revolutions of 1848–50, which represented a major defeat and step backward in terms of political self-activity. The primary form of working-class self-activity in the wake of this retreat was self-help, not electoral engagement, or mass direct action. In this period, “the working class turned from political to economic association” in the form of “an uninterrupted increase in the membership and financial strength of Friendly societies, Co-operative Societies and Trade Unions.”3 These provided in turn minimal sickness and funeral benefits, the regulation of basic consumer prices, and the negotiation of wage rates, at least for the more skilled sections of the working class.

Even into most of the 1880s, when the generally sectarian Social Democratic Federation (SDF) founded by H. M. Hyndman, who had been a Radical Tory not a Liberal, and the always gradualist and elitist Fabian Society were formed; there were only a few hundred socialists active in all of Britain. Still more startling was the fact that “before 1914 the total vote of all labour and socialist candidates, whatever their affiliation, never amounted to more than perhaps 20 percent of union membership.”4 In addition to the exclusion of millions prior to 1918, widespread abstention from voting, and continued support for Liberals, the major political orientation of unions in the period through the 1880s and 1890s was through the Trade Union Congress’s Parliamentary Committee, which limited its activities to lobbying Parliament, occasionally discussing union political representation without acting, and generally supporting the Lib-Labs. Electoral politics was never the major expression of the political or social attitudes or activities of the British working class up to and even after World War I. As we will see below, there is much more to the picture of class formation than voting or running for office.

The unions and their leaders in Victorian Britain up to the late 1880s were by all accounts conservative and based almost exclusively on skilled workers. The union leaders were not socialists, were obsessed with respectability, denied the existence of a fundamental class struggle, and engaged in employer-union cooperation punctuated by occasional strikes over wages. This reflected the acceptance of much of the liberal “common sense” of markets in society through much of this period. This was also, of course, the period in which the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA), or First International, was headquartered in London. Despite the best efforts of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, however, the International, as one Marxist historian put it, “was not able to wean them from their respectability and insular craft prejudices.”5

Both major parties in this period, Liberal and Conservative (or Tory), had become modern parties with members in local constituency (electoral district) organizations well before the Reform Act of 1867 and the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 opened the gates to hundreds of thousands of urban “householder” working-class males. The Liberal Party was already the party of the rising capitalist class with a base in the new middle classes before significant numbers of workers had the vote or were able to become members and/or candidates. The politics of the Liberal Party under its leader for most of this era, William Gladstone, were centred on free trade, free markets, political reform, a minimal state, limiting the power of the Church of England, and Irish Home Rule. Its economic and intellectual theory and policies came from free market political economists Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill.

As Blanc mentions, it was not until the end of the century that the Liberals turned to anything like socioeconomic reforms. Even then, the Liberal government of 1892–95 “paid for social reforms and naval expenditure by imposing for the first time an effective death duty” and later an income tax. “New Liberalism,” as it was called, “was an attempt to justify the free-market system by making it work ‘fairly’; it attempted its rationalization, not its replacement.” The reforms were, in fact, minimal even compared to those implemented earlier by Bismarck in Germany or later in the New Deal. Nor did these reforms prevent a series of mass upheavals.

“First Steps” or Retreat and Misstep?

Chartism had been a huge mass movement for political equality and the vote. Its defeat, a major setback for the working class, had left a political vacuum filled mostly by “self-help” and narrow trade union bargaining rather than political engagement. It was in the early days right after the electoral reform of 1867 that union officials turned to electoral activity in the Labour Representation League. Its first outing was a near success. A founding member of the International ran as a “Radical Working Man” against the Liberal and Tory candidates in an 1870 by-election in Southwark, London, where he beat the Liberal by more than 1,400 votes and came in behind the Tory by only 304 votes. This shocked the Liberals, who henceforth “adopted the few working-class representatives whom it allowed to stand.”6

In the 1874 election, as Blanc reports, most of its candidates except two Liberals lost. The “lessons” drawn by the conservative union leaders of the day from that brief electoral experience pushed future working-class candidates further into the Liberal Party. It was in the wake of the 1874 election that the Liberal Party itself “adopted a new line toward the trade union movement” and sought with reluctance working-class candidates.7 By 1880, the Labour Representation League, its function co-opted by the Liberals themselves, “had practically withered away.”8 In those days there was no primary and no permanent party ballot line such as exists in the United States today. Aspiring Liberals had to get the approval of a Liberal constituency and often the national organization, and then “stood as Liberals and, if elected, took the Liberal whip”—that is, accepted party discipline.9 “But in doing so,” as Engels wrote after the 1874 election, “they ceased to be workers’ candidates and turned themselves into bourgeois candidates.”10

In fact, Marx and Engels were opposed to workers or union leaders supporting or running as Liberals for the good reason that the Liberal Party was the party of the growing capitalist class. Here it is worth quoting Engels, who followed British politics in detail and wrote in The Labour Standard in 1881:

How often have we not been warned by friends and sympathizers, “Keep aloof from party politics!” And they were perfectly right, as far as English political parties are concerned. A Labour organ must be neither Whig nor Tory, neither Conservative or Liberal, or even Radical, in the actual party sense of the word. Conservatives, Liberals, Radicals, all of them represent but the interests of the ruling classes, and various shades of opinion predominating among them amongst landlords, capitalists, and retail tradesmen. If they do represent the working class, they most decidedly misrepresent it. The working class has interests of its own, political as well as social. How it has stood up for what it considered its social interests, the history of the Trades Unions and the Short [working] Time movement shows. But its political interests it leaves almost entirely in the hands of Tories, Whigs, and Radicals, men of the upper class, and for nearly a quarter of a century the working class of England has contented itself with forming, as it were, the tail of the “Great Liberal Party.” This is a political position unworthy of the best organized working class of Europe.

He was not alone in this view. The popular labor paper in which this appeared, The Labour Standard, campaigned regularly at that time for a “distinct and national Labour party.”11 In fact, Engels continued to advocate for an independent labor party well into the 1880s, taking some inspiration from the brief success of the Union Labor Parties in the United States in 1886–87. He was supported in this by younger members of William Morris’s Socialist League, although Morris himself opposed electoral action.12

Should we have been on that side of the debate or with the Liberals? As Hal Draper explained of Marx’s and Engels’s approach at that time, “It was by criticism, not approval, that they sought to move the advanced elements of the class beyond the bourgeoisified forms in which they were still imprisoned.”13 This is clearly not the approach taken by Blanc who sees the deepening “imprisonment” in the Liberal Party as a step forward rather than a retreat or diversion from class political independence.

It is worth looking in more detail at the Lib-Labs, defined at the time as men of working-class social origins but Liberal affiliation, since they appear to be one of Blanc’s precedents for the “Dirty Break.” In 1881 three were elected to Parliament and one of them died that year leaving just two.14 Over their entire career from 1874 to 1918 covering eleven general elections, only forty-two Lib-Labs filled a seat in a Parliament with 670 seats and Liberal delegations that ranged between 177 to 397. No more than a dozen or so Lib-Labs sat in Parliament at the same time in any one decade before 1906. Nor did they produce any significant reforms prior to Labour’s independent presence in Parliament in 1906. In other words, they were a marginal factor in the politics of Parliament and the Liberal Party for this entire period—and in any case never proposed a break from this party. They were in no sense a “first step” toward political class formation or a model for the “Dirty Break.”

Photo from Working Class Movement Library.

What distinguished the Lib-Labs from most of their Liberal colleagues, aside from social origin, was their emphasis on legislation that sought to make unions legal as they had been before 1871. While a number of acts of Parliament sought to address this issue as well as to deal with factory conditions, wage theft, and the right to strike, they all proved inadequate and poorly enforced into the 1890s. Testimony by workers and trade union officials at various Royal Commissions and union conferences in the 1880s and 1890s was universally critical of this legislation.15 This is a major reason why union leaders turned to the Labour Representation Committee in 1900, even before the famous Taff Vale decision that made unions liable for strike activity. While the majority Liberal government of 1906–10 did pass reforms, as Blanc suggests, it did so when it was not dependent on Labour votes either to pass the legislation or stay in office. When it lost its majority in the two elections of 1910, it was the votes of the Irish parliamentary party that kept it in office. The Labour delegation was not strong enough even to force the Trade Union Act of 1913 to fully reverse the 1909 Osborne ruling that limited unions from using funds to support the Labour Party.16

Blanc quotes Ralph Miliband as saying that, in the face of the minority Liberal government after 1910, “it was inevitable that the Labour Party should side with the Liberals against the Conservatives.” While even this is doubtful, given the much larger support of the Irish delegation, Blanc might have produced the entire quote, which referred to the period of mass worker upsurge of 1910–14 and included a rather more negative view of Labour’s functioning:

In the bitter conflicts of those years—the most stormy period of British politics in this century—it was inevitable that the Labour Party should support the Liberals against the Conservatives. What was less inevitable was that the Labour Party’s voice should be reduced to a muffled plaint, which could barely be heard above the impassioned chorus of debate over issues such as the reform of the House of Lords and Irish Home rule. Neither Conservative nor Liberal protagonists in that debate found it necessary to pay close attention to what the Labour Party might or might not think and do.17

In short, the Labour Party remained a junior, largely ignored partner to the Liberals. This, I presume, would not be the goal of the workers’ party that is to come from the “Dirty Break.” So why such a positive view of this dependence on the Liberals? Perhaps, because in its more positive presentation, it’s supposed to sound like passing through the Democratic Party?

More importantly for today’s debates, the Lib-Labs in no way fit the “Dirty Break” model. They were not socialists of any type. They did not enter the Liberal Party or run as its candidates to “expose” its contradictions, nor to engage on a “collision course” with its leaders, much less to split the party and form a new one. As a political tendency in the Liberal Party, the Lib-Labs acted as an alternative and rival to those advocating and organizing for independent political action, not as precursors. Only in 1906, when Labour candidates surpassed the Lib-Labs and established Labour as a block in Parliament did some Lib-Labs finally came over to the newly declared Labour Party. Others remained Liberals for years. They were not, as Blanc argues, “a step forward in the process of class formation,” but a drag on it; and in so far as they influenced working-class opinion, even a rear action barrier to political class formation and the growing self-organization and class consciousness that took form over this period.

Leaps, Upheavals, Organization, and Class Consciousness

As Eric Hobsbawm and others showed long ago, class formation, that is the development of working-class organization and consciousness, tends to unfold in “leaps” or “explosions” brought on by upsurges in social and class conflict. To be sure, there are underlying conditions and prior trends or developments that point toward such social upheavals and shape the possibilities, but it is in these social/political explosions that new organizations and new ways of thinking, including about class and politics, arise rapidly.18 In the United States such upsurges and strike waves have occurred in the mid-1880s, 1900–04, 1933–37, 1965–79, each bringing new forms of worker organization and consciousness. In Britain, the period of Chartism from 1832 to 1848; the “New Unionism” strike wave of 1888–92; the “Great Unrest” of 1911–14 and its continuation from 1916–20 all saw the growth and transformation of unions, the widening of class consciousness, and the development of independent working-class politics in the last case, including a significant revolutionary current.19

The “New Union” upsurge 1888–92 saw 2,400 strikes, costing capital 11 million work days lost, while union membership soared from about 674,000 to 1.5 million, as hundreds of thousands poured into and created the “New Unions” of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and expanded the base of many older unions.20 Blanc correctly notes the role of future members of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), “who organized within the class as it actually was, not as they wished it to be,” in this upsurge. It wasn’t, however, just the existing socialists who were few in numbers, much less the “flamboyant” Keir Hardie, but those who became socialists in the thousands as a result of the New Unionism upsurge that made the next steps possible, including the formation and growth of the ILP itself. It was this escalation of class struggle that brought a major step forward in class consciousness, launched the growth of socialist organization based in the working class, primarily in the form of the ILP as an alternative to the Lib-Labs, and made possible the fight for independent working-class politics and organization that led to the formation of the Labour Party. As one historian summarized the origins of the ILP: “Down to 1914 the Independent Labour Party (ILP) was the driving force in the Labour Party. It grew out of the New Unionism, which won its first victory in the London Dock Strike of 1889 under Tom Mann and John Burns.”21

It is impossible to understand the role of the ILP in the origins of the Labour Party without grasping its own roots in the upheaval of the New Unionism. Seeing its role as simply the clever tactical application of some “pragmatic socialism” or a few leaders misses the underlying reality of consciousness transforming mass action without which the ILP could not have played even the contradictory role that it did in the founding of the Labour Party.

The significance of the ILP in this period despite its small size (about 11–12,000 members) lay primarily in its working-class membership and its commitment to independent working-class politics from its formation in 1893. Despite a brief flirtation with the Liberals several years earlier, Keir Hardy was clear on this from the start. Henry Pelling described the class significance of this at the founding conference of the ILP in January 1893: “But the most interesting feature of the gathering was the presence of a new type of political delegate—the intelligent, respectable, working trade unionist of the new labour clubs…they were the working class in earnest…the tangible evidence of a new factor in British politics.”22

The fact that from its birth the ILP was based heavily on activists from the New Union upsurge and included in its ranks the leaders of five of the most important new and old unions in that upsurge, including the London and Liverpool dockers’ unions, gave this new and independent socialist organization the ability to be the major force in eventually pushing for a broader independent labor party.23

Although a couple of leaders had been briefly involved in Liberal politics, and while many workers had voted Liberal or Tory in the past, the formation of the ILP was not a matter of anyone building something inside the major parties or running as their candidates. The mass base and most leaders that met in Bradford in January 1893 to form the ILP had, in fact, been organizing independent labor parties and clubs at a local level for some time. They were to a large extent, as Pelling also points out, a new generation, “the product of new education and the widening franchise,” many of them union activists for whom electoral politics was a new potential channel of class struggle. The relatively experienced Hardie was thirty-six that year, older than most of the delegates.24

The formation of the ILP in 1893 was not a result of some organized break from the Liberals. No one, in fact, had organized a break from the Liberals. Imposing the “Dirty Break” model on the history of the ILP, or for that matter the Labour Party, is indeed a case of what Thompson called cutting history to fit a model. The central purpose of the founding of the ILP was to unite those already building independent working-class politics, the union activists of the New Union upsurge, which was bringing in new members, and to win others to independent labor politics. Blanc misrepresents all of this in brief in a more recent article and calls for concealing the goal of a break or split of any sort when running in Democratic primaries.

This, of course, leads us to the whole matter of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) through which the ILP expressed its numerically disproportionate influence, and which became the Labour Party in 1906. The positive side is that, for all its problems, it did push for an independent party. As Stewart Reid wrote of the LRC’s founding conference in 1900, “If there was any unity of aim or purpose in in the first conference, that unity lay in the conscious desire of the majority of delegates to achieve a means of separate and distinct labor representation in parliament.”25 That is, the majority had no intention of repeating the failed strategy of the Lib-Labs, with which they were perfectly familiar.

There are, however, two issues here that call into question whether the LRC represents any sort of model for socialist politics in the United States today. The first is its undemocratic structure as a top-down delegated annual conference, with an executive of twelve members, in which the members and even the leaders of the affiliated unions and socialist organizations had no say in most cases. Since the LRC and even the newly declared Labour Party had no stated policy or “comprehensive, long-term programme” until 1918, decisions on legislative activities, for example, were made ad hoc by the twelve-member executive and the members of parliament meeting together.26 There was no mediating structure between the affiliates and the executive and members of parliament and no grassroots organizations until 1918. Its members in Parliament simply pushed for legislation, most of which already had support in the Liberal Party.

The second issue is the agreement or, as Frank Bealey and Pelling called it, the 1903 “entente,” between Ramsay MacDonald and Herbert Gladstone for the Liberals, behind the backs of the ILP membership and the LRC. Under this secret entente the two parties agreed not to run against each other in a selected number of constituencies to avoid putting the Tories in office due to the familiar “spoiler” effect of the “first-past-the-post” electoral system, as Blanc points out. This would remain the unvoted-on policy of the Labour Party for some time.27 Referring to the election victory of the Liberals in 1906, Blanc simply notes: “Ironically, it was a deal with the party of the bosses that made possible labor’s big independent political breakthrough.” There was nothing ironic about it, however, from the point of view of the Liberals who sought to increase working-class support for forming a government via this agreement. Given that MacDonald went so far as to indicate that the LRC would support a Liberal Government in the next election, it is not surprising the Liberals were willing to “risk” it.

Blanc argues of the entente, that “in the short term it was a boon for the Libs, helping them sweep to power in 1906.” In the actual historical context, lacking a soothsayer and being necessarily focused on the next election like most electoral parties, the “short term” was all the Liberals could see or cared about. The Liberals won with 397 seats, an absolute majority, while the LRC/LP won twenty-nine seats, five in opposition to Liberal candidates, the rest through the deal. The number of potential seats Labour surrendered to the Liberals is hard to determine, but the net gain via the entente was certainly not much more than twenty. Clearly the Liberals got the best of the deal.

The New Unionism strike wave of 1888-92 played a key role in the formation of the Independent Labour Party. Image by Matt Brown.

Though the entente was made in secret, its implementation was there for all to see: Liberals withdrawing in favor of Labour candidates and Labour not opposing Liberals in certain constituencies. This would bring discredit on Labour among those whose votes it needed. The problem was compounded by the fact that Labour had no grassroots constituency organizations at that time. In effect, Labour was taking seats in Parliament on the basis of Liberal constituency votes cast primarily to defeat the Tories because there was no Liberal candidate in that constituency due to the entente. Hardly an advance in organization, consciousness, or class formation generally. Grassroots party organization would come to the Labor Party only in 1918, after the mass upsurge of the Great Unrest provided a huge mass base in the unions.

Of the results for Labour of the 1906 election, the breakthrough Blanc refers to, Stewart Reid writes, “During the first Liberal administration from 1906 to 1910, suspicion increased in the ranks of the Labour Party that Liberalism was slowly but surely ‘sterilizing’ the whole movement.”28 Ralph Miliband argues, “In fact, the history of the LRC is largely the history of political maneuvers to reach electoral accommodations with the Liberals.” Of the results of that experience up to World War I, Miliband concluded, “Given the history of the LRC, there was never any likelihood that the new Labour Party in Parliament, however incisive the individual contributions of some of its members might on occasion be, would assume the character of a militant and independent opposition, with distinctive, let alone socialist policies.”29 One lesson here is that the means affect the ends and have consequences—in this case overwhelmingly negative ones from a class perspective.

If this was political class formation, millions of workers failed to recognize it and in fact rebelled against it in the greatest social and political upsurge in that nation’s history, at least since the English Revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. As the junior partner to Liberalism, on the other hand, Labour saw significant growth in the working class postponed for years.30 Yet, Blanc puts a good deal of emphasis on the arrangements with the Liberals because it made it possible for the LRC to win enough seats in Parliament to be a credible block by 1906. For all the deals, prior to the outbreak of World War I, in the two elections of 1910 Labour never won more than forty-two seats out of 670, and many of those it owed to the Liberals. Aside from the sheer opportunism of this supposed precedent for a “Dirty Break,” there are two aspects missing from Blanc’s largely positive consideration of this maneuver.

First, one might ask why a major political party in a first-past-the-post electoral system would agree to stand down in favor of a rival party in a number of election districts? Can you imagine the Democrats offering not to oppose a third party in several House Congressional or state legislative districts where Democrats had any chance of winning or even of maintaining second place? No, of course not, because such a deal might tip the balance in the House or state legislature to the Republicans if the third party established a firm presence in those districts. The reason that the Liberals could make such a deal is that in the parliamentary system governments are often formed by a coalition of parties. This was the case in Britain, where Tory governments often depended on an alliance with the Liberal Unionists and Liberal governments in this period rested on the support of the sizable Irish nationalist parliamentary party more often than not. So, given the very different workings of government in the United States, even if some Dirty Break enthusiasts hoped to squeeze a few seats for a workers’ party out of such a deal with the Democrats, they would be laughed out of the proverbial smoke-filled room.

Rank and File Opposition, The Great Unrest, and Class Formation

Second and more important is the fact that the entente and similar deals made by the ILP leaders of the LRC did not go down well with the rank-and-file members of the ILP, the new unions, or even the LRC. As both Miliband and Stewart Reid show at some length, there was significant opposition to the policy of cooperation with and subordination to the Liberals both in elections and in legislative matters in this formative period. Most of this opposition came from the ranks of the ILP and unions, not primarily as Blanc suggests from “revolutionary socialists” presumed to be sectarian. Stewart Reid estimates this opposition was a “strong minority” of the ILP, but that “probably” it “did not at any time represent a majority of the party.”31 Yet, this sentiment was significant and reflected a new mood among the workers, on the one hand, and the inability of the new Labour Party to win their votes due to its lack of independent policies and closeness to the Liberals, on the other hand.

In fact, the Labour vote reached its height before the war in January 1910 at just 435,770 out of a total of 6.2 million votes and 2.5 million union members. It then fell to 309,963 out of 4.9 million in December of that year. This poor working-class vote resulted from disillusionment with Labour’s association with the Liberal government, which lost 125 seats and over half a million votes in that election. By 1913, as the Great Unrest reached a highpoint, George Dangerfield, speculating about the new mood of workers’ dissatisfaction, noted, “Certainly the Labor Party, so coyly and inextricably tied to the apron strings of the Mother of Parliaments, had become little more than an inconspicuous and uneasy ally of the Liberal Party.”32

Despite some Liberal legislative gains in 1906–10, such gains as were made after 1910 were not satisfactory to Labour or the unions. Labour members in Parliament split on national insurance, and a minimum wage law forced on Parliament by a miners strike in 1912 satisfied no one. Furthermore, “the sharpening resentment at the collaboration between Labour party leaders and the Liberal government heads” led to a political crisis avoided only by the war in 1914. As Reid described the mood, “In the period following 1910 the sense of disillusionment and defeat continued to grow.”33 This at a time when workers were taking action on their own by the tens and hundreds of thousands. It is not surprising that angry workers did not vote for a weak party, subordinate to “the party of the bosses,” with no distinct policies to address the fall in living standards. In terms of lessons from this experience, why would socialists today get themselves into such a mess? Why does Blanc think the “entente” was such an ironically good thing?

Part of what was driving the opposition to Labour’s subordination to the Liberal Party inside the party and the ranks of the ILP was the massive workers’ upsurge that bypassed Labour and Parliament altogether, out of which grew huge steps in organization and a new class consciousness; that is, huge steps forward in class formation. The Great Unrest, as it became known, burst on the scene from 1910 to 1920. The number of strikes would increase from 510 in 1910 to 1,497 in 1913, while the number of strikers rose from 385,000 to 1.2 million in 1912. After a pause with the opening of World War I in 1914, the strike movement resumed in 1916 and grew from 532 to 1,352 strikes in 1919, while the number of strikers soared from 235,000 to an unprecedented 2.4 million in that year. Over this period from 1910 to 1919, with only a slight pause in 1914, union membership escalated from just under 2.6 million to 7.9 million.34

Blanc argues that “Labor unrest on its own did not bring about the rise of independent working-class politics…. Class formation… is never automatic.” True enough, nothing is automatic in the contradictory process of class formation, which involves much more than cohering a “political,” by which Blanc means electoral, “agent.” Outcomes depend on organization, politics, and more. In reality, however, there is no such thing as “Labor unrest on its own.” Social upheavals such as the New Unionism and the even more massive and prolonged Great Unrest involve more than a radical increase in strikes, union members, or simple “unrest.” Such periods of mass social upsurge are motors of class formation—Hobsbawm’s “leaps”—in which contesting ideas and politics compete (non-automatically) and rival one another in the context of mass action.

As E. P. Thompson argues, “experience is a necessary middle term between social being and social consciousness.” Or, as Hal Draper put it in his discussion of Marx’s own development, “In Marxist theory the class struggle is a middle term, a trait d’union, between economics and politics as between economics and historical analysis.”35 The experience of participants in prolonged mass social movements is always transformative to one degree or another. It is this experience that begins to undo and challenge all the old ideas and what Antonio Gramsci calls “common sense” or more generally the “ideas of the ruling class [which] are in every epoch the ruling ideas” that obscure the realities of capitalism.

Rosa Luxemburg argued in The Mass Strike that, far from being separate phenomena, the economic (unrest) and political aspects of mass strike movements, “there is the most reciprocal action” between them. It was collective self-activity in this “reciprocal action” that brought greater consciousness. In the case of the January 1905 mass strike in St. Petersburg, she wrote, “But this first general direct action reacted inwardly all the more powerfully as it for the first time awoke class feeling and class consciousness in millions upon millions as if by an electric shock.” Luxemburg, of course, recognized the need for “political education, of class consciousness and organization” and the role of socialists to carry this process to a revolutionary conclusion. However, “All of these conditions cannot be fulfilled by pamphlets and leaflets, but only by the living political school, the fight and in the fight, in the continuous course of the revolution.”

The more massive and more intense the conflict, the more likely class consciousness takes shape and the more political it becomes. Dangerfield was right that the Great Unrest was “An assault upon Liberalism!”36 As one study of the dynamics of this upsurge argued, due in part to the impact of the war, the strike movement of 1916–20 “saw a distinct widening of the aims of labor beyond the establishment of organization, and imparted a more aggressive and insurgent quality to the working people’s industrial and political activities” (emphasis added).37 Parliamentary socialists were simply bypassed in this upsurge and were unable, even under the influence of the mass upsurge and with a new socialist program and new constituency organizations created in 1918, to make the new Labour Party a truly mass organization until the 1920s. The lesson here is that “unrest” far from being something “on its own” was the key to expanded class consciousness and both immediate and future political development.

To be sure, nothing in this complex human process is “automatic” because the contradictory nature of mass “unrest” is not mechanical but the result of human interaction that can be self-reinforcing, self-defeating, blocked or pushed by war, and all carried by the collective self-activity of working-class people whose ideas often clash. The idea of independent working-class or labor political action had to be expressed in organized form, as it was by the ILP. But because it was so compromised by its association with Liberalism, the new Labour Party could not carry the day until the Liberal Party had split and collapsed from its own contradictions after the war. The lesson here is that socialists need to organize for political independence from the start and be clear and forthright about their goals.

In any case, it was not “socialist efforts” that united the class into unions with more than 8 million members by 1920, making the Labour Party electorally credible at last, but the complex self-activity of the workers themselves, among whom socialists were a divided minority. The New Unionism gave new life to both broader forms of unionism, socialist organization, and independent labor politics, which had been preached for years by socialists and ignored for years by most trade union leaders. In the “Great Unrest” the perceived ineffectiveness of parliamentary politics was transcended by massive unionization, intense social/political conflict, and revolutionary ideas—first in the form of syndicalism, which led to revolutionary socialism after the Russian revolution. Yes, socialists played an important role in this process. But there isn’t unrest here and socialist efforts over there. Some socialists were effective because they were an integral part of the unrest, which they could not have created but could help to lead because there were people in motion to lead. Other socialists, by contrast, were ineffective because they were tied to what amounted to political class collaboration and narrow electoral and parliamentary maneuvering.

Keir Hardie helped form the Independent Labour Party in 1892 and the Labour Party in 1906. Photo from 1903.

The upsurge of 1910–20 brought a new phase in class formation that included not only mass strikes, the vast expansion of union organization, and solidarity across industrial and union lines. It brought in its path the creation of the shop stewards’ movement that challenged capital on-the-job, a confident rank and file willing to strike against the wishes of their leaders, and the idea of steps toward industrial unionism via “amalgamation” of craft unions. By all accounts this social upheaval wrought a far broader class consciousness generally, and with it the development of revolutionary politics by a significant minority. Revolutionary syndicalism, following the Russian Revolution in 1917, flowed into the formation of the Communist Party in 1920—at that time a small, but genuine revolutionary socialist party.38

In terms of electoral politics, the “Great Unrest” saw the demise of the Liberal Party, not at the hands of the Labour Party, but due to internal disorientation as a result of the combined impact of the labor upsurge, the mass and militant movement for women’s suffrage, and the fight for and resistance to independence for Ireland—told most dramatically in George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England.39 This is a reminder that the convergence of distinct social movements can have a powerful impact on events.

The rise of union membership and class consciousness eventually benefited the Labour Party. By 1918, however, Labour surpassed the Liberals in seats only because the Liberals split. It really only acquired a mass vote and beat the Liberals in 1923, though still not enough to gain a majority. This founding phase ended in the disastrous and brief minority Labour government of 1924 that terminated in a scandal when Ramsay MacDonald acting as prime minister appointed numerous friends to the House of Lords and took a £40,000 “gift” from a Scottish businessman.40 Not much of an example for us today—I hope.

Sounding Retreat

If in February 2021, Blanc was still looking for precedents for the Dirty Break in the unlikely example of the origins of the British Labour Party, by August, on the eve of the Democratic Socialists of America national convention, he was already sounding retreat from any public support for a future break from the Democrats. This was expressed in his arguments against an amendment formulated and passed 55 percent to 45 percent in his own caucus, Bread & Roses.41 The amendment (#5) to Resolution #8 “Toward a Mass Party in the United States,” called for concrete steps toward the Dirty Break. Blanc opposed amendment #5, which was defeated at the convention, 442 to 577. The unamended Resolution #8 called for a focus on electoral politics that emphasized contesting “partisan elections chiefly on the Democratic ballot-line.”

In arguing against amendment #5, however, what had been an openly advocated electoral strategy was now, according to Blanc, just so much “‘Dirty break’ propagandism.” More than that, its public advocacy, and any effort to make it more concrete were now supposedly a barrier to the strategy itself. Blanc argues, “In so far as dirty break propaganda undercuts our current work to build a strong DSA—for example, by making it more difficult for us to elect class-struggle candidates or for them to effectively fight for workers’ demands once in office—it actually undercuts moving toward a dirty break in practice.” Blanc now seems to recognize that there is a problem in running as a Democrat on a platform of splitting the party you hope to represent. However, what is still unacknowledged in splitting or breaking from the party, no matter who does the splitting, is that you necessarily reintroduce the “spoiler” effect, which was supposedly the reason for running as Democrats in the first place.

It is by implication now somehow more likely socialists will make a dirty break or provoke an expulsion simply by gaining strength in the Democratic Party without telling anyone in advance that they favor such a break, much less organizing for it. Nobody, not even the Dixiecrats, have ever been expelled from the Democratic Party, as the party has no members and there is no mechanism for expulsion. Its attempts to exclude candidates from primaries because they are not loyal Democrats have failed so far. It has other ways of punishing dissident candidates and office holders. Even aside from the dishonesty imposed on DSA members and DSA itself by silence on the break strategy, if one even exists, or the fact that such deception is certain to be exposed, how are socialists to get to a workers’ party by breaking from the Democratic Party without publicly proclaiming its necessity, educating, preparing, and organizing for it? Apparently, the break is now inevitable and “automatic.”

Not that Blanc isn’t concerned with the truth as he sees it. He argues that “If we were 100 percent certain that, to quote Nick [French], the ‘Democratic Party will not be a workers’ party’ then we would have the obligation to tell the truth to our class…. Furthermore, we sound dogmatic if we absolutely discount the possibility for leftists to capture the national Democratic Party summit through a hostile takeover via class struggle primaries.” After all, “Impossibility and unlikeliness are not the same thing.” To demand 100 percent certainty of his opponents is pure sophistry. No science operates on 100 percent certainty or its opposite: impossibility. Blanc’s standard of epistemological exactitude is truly unique. Scientists, on the other hand, deal in levels of certainty, confidence, or probability based on theory, evidence, experimentation, criticism, and debate whether examining climate change, the origins of the universe, or the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Most of us accept the judgements of scientists or genuine experts in such cases where a significant majority agree on the evidence; that is, necessarily on less than absolute knowledge or certainty, as in the case of Covid-19 vaccines.

In terms of society and politics, where uncertainty is even greater, Marxists nevertheless feel confident in telling our class that capitalism will not provide a decent life for everyone based on our theory, analyses, experiences, criticism, and evidence—that is, on the high degree of “likeliness” rather than 100 percent “proof,” which when speaking of the future is unachievable. We do so because we believe our method is sound, the analysis is based on evidence, we have dealt with criticism, and we must act as well as analyze to be relevant. To argue that socialists cannot comment on or make assessments of things we do not have 100 percent certainty of is a methodological and political absurdity—and a recipe for political paralysis. Despite these limits, we do have “the obligation to tell the truth to our class” as we understand it. Truth as absolute certainty, however, is the epistemology of idealist philosophers and religious fundamentalists.

Concerning a “hostile takeover” of the Democratic Party, to say that “Nobody has yet made a strong case for why this approach is absolutely guaranteed to fail” (emphasis added) is equally an obfuscation. Agree, disagree, or ignore them, plenty of socialists, including myself, have made a strong evidentiary case that the possibility of turning the Democratic Party into a workers’ or socialist party is too remote to be the basis for a viable class-based socialist political strategy or practice. Actual evidence renders such an imaginative scenario as Blanc’s “hostile takeover” highly unlikely.

Since the Democratic Party is not a membership organization and its “official” county committees don’t count for much, the primary election appears as the only path to a “takeover.” Because this “party” is actually more than its office holders, this appearance is an illusion. In any case, the primary, initiated by elite “reformers” over a century ago to preclude popular participation in party affairs and to undermine the concept of a membership party altogether, is itself a bastion of the electoral status quo.42 Of the hundreds of primary challenges to Congressional incumbents that take place each election year, only an average of 1.6 percent or less in each election cycle since 1946 have succeeded, despite the frequently cited handful of recent high-profile upsets.>43 Nor are elections every two years in general or primaries in particular a fruitful context in which to build real or lasting working-class organization and power.44 For that we must look to the broader reality of accelerating “unrest” in the workplaces, unions, streets, and actual social movements of the day. Furthermore, recent empirically verifiable trends in the Democratic Party’s major funding sources; its candidates’ and officeholders’ class, wealth, and political profiles; and the party’s voter class base all run contrary to Blanc’s imaginative scenario of a working-class takeover of the party.

The weight of Blanc’s recent arguments points to a move back to the old social democratic default position of simply trying to move the Democratic Party to the left (the “left wing of the possible,” in Michael Harrington’s phrase), with perhaps a more original and totally unprecedented twist: the hope that should the rebels have some success, the party establishment will do the dirty breaking for them and kick them out.

Looking back, if there is a positive lesson from the birth of the British Labour Party, it is that its organizers began with an independent working-class organization formed by socialists with deep roots in a rising labor movement and a clearly stated goal of class political independence. On the other hand, the negative lesson is that electoral deals and the resulting subordination to a major capitalist party compromised Labour’s ability to gain a powerful working-class base for a quarter of a century or more—even during a period of mass workers’ upsurge. None of this fits well with Blanc’s version of history or his new broken break strategy.


 

  • Michelle Perrot, “On the Formation of the French Working Class,” in Working-Class Formation: nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States, eds. Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 71.↩︎
  • C. R. Fay, Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century (Brimscombe Port UK: Nonsuch Publishing Limited, 2006 originally 1920), 331.↩︎
  • Fay, Life and Labour, 332.↩︎
  • Eric Hobsbawm, World of Labour: Further Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1984), 153, 200; on Hyndmand see Henry Pelling, Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 15–16.↩︎
  • A. L. Morton, A People’s History of England London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979 originally 1938), 447.↩︎
  • Paul Foot, The Vote: How It Was Won, How It Was Undermined (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 188–89.↩︎
  • J.H. Steward Reid, The Origins of the British Labour Party (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955), 73. ↩︎
  • David Thomson, England in the Nineteenth Century (1815–1914) (London: Penguin Books, 1960), 148–49; Pelling, The Origins, 5–6; Foot, The Vote, 189. ↩︎
  • Mary Davis, Comrades or Brother? A History of the British Labour Movement (London: Pluto Press, 2009), 85; Stewart Reid, Origins, 116.↩︎
  • Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution: The Politics of Social Classes, Volume II (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 140.↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 73.↩︎
  • Pelling, Origins, 53–54. ↩︎
  • Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory, 141. ↩︎
  • Pelling, Origins, 15.↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 71. ↩︎
  • Ralph Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour (London: Allen and Unwin, 1961), 24. ↩︎
  • Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 23–24. ↩︎
  • E. J. Hobsbawm, Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), 126-157; Leopold Haimson and Charlies Tilly, eds., Strikes, Wars, and Revolutions in an International Perspective: Strive Waves in the Late nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), passim. ↩︎
  • Hobsbawm, Worlds, 194–213; Fay, Life, 334. ↩︎
  • Hobsbawm, Worlds, 153–75; Stewart Reid, Origins, 241.↩︎
  • Fay, Life, 340.↩︎
  • Henry Pelling, Origins of the British Labour Party, 1880-1900, Second Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), 116. ↩︎
  • For these unions see Frank Bealey and H. M. Pelling, Labour and Politics, 1900–1906 (London: Macmillan & Co, 1958), 20–21. ↩︎
  • Pelling, Origins, 99–124, 187, passim.↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 89. ↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 116, 119. ↩︎
  • Bealey and Pelling, Labour, 125–59; Stewart Reid, Origins,176–81; Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 19–20.↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 176.↩︎
  • Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 19, 21. ↩︎
  • George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England [1910-1914] (Transaction Publishers, 1935), 215. ↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 176–204; Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism, 25–32. ↩︎
  • Dangerfield, Strange Death, 214–15. ↩︎
  • Stewart Reid, Origins, 157–75. ↩︎
  • James E. Cronin, Strikes and power in Britain, 1870–1920, in Haimson and Tilly, Strikes, 82–83. ↩︎
  • Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume I: State and Bureaucracy (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1977), 163. ↩︎
  • Dangerfield, Strange Death, 215. ↩︎
  • Cronin, “Strikes, 81. ↩︎
  • James E. Cronin, “The Crisis of State and Society in Britain, 1917–1922,” in Haimson and Tilly, Strikes, 457–72; Davis, Comrades, 110–58; Hobsbawm, Worlds, 194–213; Dangerfield, Strange Death, 214–330. ↩︎
  • Dangerfield, Strange Death, passim. Dangerfield’s account of worker’s consciousness is condescending, but his account of the Great Unrest accurate and valuable. ↩︎
  • Foot, The Vote, 241–70. ↩︎
  • Due to the closeness of the vote, however, Bread & Roses did not formally support the amendment at the convention. B&R delegates voted for or against as individuals. ↩︎
  • For historical background see Arthur Lipow, Political Parties and Democracy: Explorations in History and Theory (London: Pluto Press, 1996), 13–24; Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1970), 71–90. ↩︎
  • For 1946 through 2018 see Gary C. Jacobson and Jamie L. Carson, The Politics of Congressional Elections, Tenth Edition (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 38. In the 2020 election there were three primary upsets out of 223 Democratic incumbents—or 1.4 percent.↩︎
  • For an explanation of this in the context of the 2016 presidential primaries see Heather Gautney, Crashing the Party: From the Bernie Sanders Campaign to a Progressive Movement (London: Verso, 2018), 132–35. ↩︎

 

 

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Kim Moody View All

Kim Moody was a founder of Labor Notes and the author of several books on US labor. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Centre for the Study of the Production of the Built Environment of the University of Westminster in London, and a member of the National Union of Journalists. He is the author of many books, including On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, In Solidarity: Essays on Working-Class Organization and Strategy in the United States, and Tramps & Trade Union Travelers: Internal Migration and Organized Labor in Gilded Age America, 1870-1900.

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