Report from Great Britain and Ireland to the Delegates of the Zürich International Socialist Worker’s Congress

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Presented by the Gas Workers and General Labourers' Union; the Legal Eight Hours and International Labour League; the Bloomsbury Socialist Society; and the Battersea Labour League.

Introduction. WE commence this Report as we commenced the Report presented to the Brussels Congress in 1891. The Report does not pretend to be complete or exhaustive, It is simply meant to be a summary of the more important work done in connection with the Working-class Movement in Great Britain and Ireland since the International Congress of 1891. But there is one great difference even at the beginning of the Report of this year. We are much more hopeful in 1893 than we were in 1891. The movement is really moving in this country, and moving with a steadily increasing speed.

Nevertheless, we are still not able to speak in the name of a British Labour Party. Such a party, in the sense of an absolute unity of programme and of method, does not yet exist here. There are still a number of organisations, all pledged to the same ultimate end—i.e., the taking over by the working-class of all means of production and distribution. But as yet they are not all at one as to the means to their common end. The organisations presenting this Report, therefore, whilst they believe that it contains an accurate statement of facts, wish it to be understood that they and they alone, are responsible for its contents. No doubt other English Reports will also be handed in.

Spread of Socialism. In the Report presented at Brussels mention was made of the Old and the New Trades’ Unionism, of their essential points of difference, of the class-consciousness, and, therefore, the Socialist programmes of the New Unions. During the past two years all these points have become more and more accentuated. The chasm between the Old Unionists imbued with the spirit of Liberal politics and the genuine New Unionists impregnated with the Socialist idea has widened. The class-consciousness of the British workers has grown. The fact that Socialism, and Socialism alone, can solve the industrial problem has become more and more clear to the workers. At meetings, indoors and out of doors, at which a few years back the name of Socialism would have been received with cries of anger and derision, the doctrines of Socialism, and the name also, are received with attention and with enthusiasm.

One very practical evidence of this is in the increase of political spirit amongst the workers’ organisations not avowedly Socialist. In all parts of the country there are signs of the desire to run Labour Candidates who are not pledged to the Radical party, even from the ranks of the old Trades’ Councils. And only a few years back, in any Trades’ Council or Labour Organisation, the mere suggestion of running a candidate in the interests of labour would have been received with howls of “No politics!” “No politics!” Political action is now honeycombing the organisations of Labour, and therefore undermining those old-fashioned organisations which looked upon Trades’ Unionism simply as a means for bettering the condition of the workers under the capitalist system, and not as a means of doing away with the system altogether.

The British Representation. An invitation to the Zürich Congress was addressed to the British Trades’ Union Congress, sitting at Glasgow in September of last year. The invitation was not at that one time accepted, but a resolution was carried in favour of summoning in England, at an early date in the present year, an International Congress, to deal solely with the Eight Hours’ Question. Ultimately, however, it was found impracticable to carry out this resolution, and the Parliamentary Committee of the Trades’ Union Congress decided, instead of summoning a Congress in England to deal with one particular labour question, to be represented at the Zürich Congress, which deals with questions affecting labour generally.

The number of organisations and delegates from Great Britain and Ireland present at Zürich, and the nature of the organisations represented, show a marked advance upon the British representation in 1891. And for the first time at an International Socialist Congress the British House of Commons is represented by delegates. We do not mean that the House of Commons has sent representatives to the Congress, but four of the delegates from organisations represented are members of that House. It must be clearly understood that of these four only two are avowed Socialists, whilst the other two belong to the “great Liberal Party.”

Rottenness and Bitterness. As the capitalistic system draws towards its end, in this country as in others, the rottenness of that system becomes daily more apparent, and the bitterness of the fight between its despairing defenders and the proletariat—hour by hour more hopeful—increases. Here also we have had our Panamas. Not, perhaps, on quite so gigantic a scale as in France, but we do our best with a number of swindles on a small scale. And then most of our swindlers are religious.

Since the last Congress the chronic question of the unemployed has passed through one of its more than usually acute stages. Last winter, all over the country there was an unusual recruiting of the reserve army of labour. The army became so large as to be threatening. The middle-class and their newspapers actually showed some of the sympathy that is born of fear. The usual sort of quack remedies were suggested. But the most significant fact was the more and more clear recognition that quack remedies are of no avail; that the unemployed are an absolutely necessary consequence of our present commercial system; and that the only method of doing away with them is the doing away with the system.

As to the bitterness of the fight between capitalists and workers. There have been several strikes, notably those of the Durham Miners, the Textile Workers, the Carpenters, the Dockside Labourers and Sailors and Firemen. From the Carpenters’ strike one of the most important practical results was the strengthening of the Building Trades’ Federation. This organisation, comprising, as its name implies, almost all branches of work, skilled and unskilled, connected with building, has grown immensely in strength of late, and probably before this Report is published, has come to the momentous decision of taking part as a body in Labour politics.

The trade difficulty that made the most sensation during the last two years was that at the shipping port of Hull. 1t was recognised on all hands as a deliberate attempt on the part of the masters to destroy the Union of the men, The masters, as was mentioned in the Brussels Report, have formed a Union of their own—the Shipping Federation. They deliberately chose Hull as the battle-ground between the Federation and the Unions. They used every possible weapon. Money, misrepresentation, intimidation, the introduction of blacklegs, the setting of workman against workman, persuasion and threats, bribery and starvation—force in all its forms. They armed their blacklegs, with fortunately disastrous results to the masters’ own agents. And the great Liberal-Radical-Gladstonian Government rose to the height of the occasion. They were not to be bettered, when it was a question of attack upon the workers, by their twin the Tory Government in connection with the Leeds strike in 1891. Of course in all questions really affecting labour, when it is a question of real fighting, the Tories and Radicals are six of the one and half-a-dozen of the other. Hence, at Leeds, in 1891, the Tories sent 400 soldiers to help the police to break the heads of the Gas Workers and General Labourers; and in 1893 the Radical Government sent troops and gunboats to Hull to help the masters and to try to “smash” the Dockers’ Union.

At Bristol, both these two Unions, the Gas Workers and the Dockers, were attacked by the police and soldiers. It is significant again, that the Unions thus attacked are Unions of unskilled labour, and are among the so-called new Unions.

Sops to Cerberus. Some small concessions have during the last two years been made or promised to the workers. The position of the great Liberal Party makes it more amenable to pressure than the Tory Party. It must not be forgotten, however, that the old distinction between these—Tory, the Landlord Party, Liberal, the Capitalist Party—has practically vanished. Both parties now really consist of landlords and capitalists rolled into one. The Liberal Party always makes a distinct bid for the working man’s vote, and a good many of the so-called “working men’s representatives” betray a lively interest as the bidding goes up. On more than one occasion the Liberals have placed in office, and well-paid office too, a so-called working-man representative. Since they have been in power this time, they have made one or two of those small concessions which we call sops to the many-headed Cerberus, the proletariat. They have improved the Employers’ Liability Bill, although there seems no likelihood of provision for claiming upon the principal contractor for a job in the event of his sub-letting his work. They have taken some steps in the direction of payment of members. They have appointed more inspectors of factories, and have placed one or two women in responsible positions in connection with the Labour Department. They are issuing a Labour Gazette, giving details and statistics of the conditions of work in this and other countries. They have drawn up a Parish Councils’ Bill whose provisions, if they are carried and carried out, will take the rural government out of the hands of the squire and the clergyman. They have made important extensions of the Education Act, and drawn up a better Registration Act. Probably if the Tories had a man of the ability and cynicism of Disraeli at their head, they would have rapidly and readily gone one better than the Radicals. But, if either Liberals or Tories think that, by granting comparatively small measures of this kind, they are likely to stay the rapidly-growing appetite of the working class they are certainly mistaken. Everywhere among that class, the idea is spreading that they are quite willing to accept from either party any measure bettering their condition, or giving them more political power. But they accept, without thankfulness, as those that receive from grudging hands the birthright of which they have been deprived. And with every such reception of a ‘favour’ from the ruling classes, the cry grows; “Give us fully and finally our own. We shall be content with nothing short of the possession of the land and raw material upon which we work, the machinery with which we work, and the products which we produce.”

Eight Hours’ Day. The annual demonstration in favour of a legal eight hours’ working day was held on the first Sunday in May—May 1st, 1892, May 7th, 1893. In 1892 there was in London one procession, one set of platforms, one resolution, declaring for the legal eight hours’ day as the most immediate end towards the ultimate emancipation of the working classes. In 1893 there were two demonstrations in London, two sets of platforms, two resolutions. The resolution passed at the platforms of the Demonstration Committee (a body composed of many Socialist organisations, most of the working men’s clubs, almost the whole of the advanced Unions, and such organisations as the Communist Verein and the Legal Eight Hours’ League) was the resolution of the two preceding years. This declared by implication for the emancipation of the working class from capitalist rule. On the other hand, at the London Trades’ Council platforms in 1893 the resolution passed was merely in favour of the eight hours’ day without any declaration that this is only one of the means to the end of the abolition of capitalism. Besides these two resolutions the Social Democratic Federation, who went with the London Trades’ Council, nevertheless passed an outspoken and unmistakably socialistic resolution.

The London Hyde Park Demonstrations were, in point of numbers, earnestness, and enthusiasm, not less effective than in past years. And in 1893 the number of demonstrations held in the provinces, in such towns as Manchester, Bradford, Plymouth, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Dublin, was far in advance of those of preceding years.

The immense value of these demonstrations and of the movement of which they are to most people the most striking sign is shown by the events of the last two years. The Trades’ Union Congresses have, after long fighting on the part of the older Unions against the legal eight hours’ day, adopted it, with, at present, the qualifying clause that any particular trade can, if a majority of its members desire it, contract itself out of the Act. Further, the cotton operatives, who have for many years been opposed to the eight hours’ day, have recently come over to the side of those who are fighting for it. The miners of Great Britain are almost unanimous in favour of the eight hours’ day in their own calling; only one district in a relatively small minority still protests against it. In the House of Commons an Eight Hours’ Bill for miners passed its second reading just before the May Demonstration of this year, and a Bill for a universal eight hours’ day has been drawn up, although it cannot be dealt with this session. The eight hours’ question has thus been brought into the domain of practical politics.

Of all these the really most significant fact is the change of front on the part of the cotton operatives. That the large and well-to-do Unions in this most important trade—Unions that have been distinguished for their strong and fierce hostility to the legalisation of the hours of labour—should have at last decided in favour of legal action is an eloquent tribute to the effect produced by the international movement for a legal eight hours’ day that sprang from the International Congress at Paris in 1889.

General Election. Since the last International Congress there has been a general election in this country. The delegates to the Zürich Congress will only desire a note or two upon the bearing of that election upon labour politics and labour representation. The making of such a note is exceptionally difficult. For at the last general election there was no distinct labour party. bringing forward candidates on a definite and common programme. Many candidates were called “labour candidates,” and several of these have been elected, who whilst, as far as name and calling in life were concerned, they were labour men, yet, as far as programme was concerned, were Radicals. Called by the ordinary press “labour candidates,” and when returned “labour members,” these Members of Parliament accept the principles of the Radical Party, make no declaration of war against it as a capitalist party, and habitually vote with it. Then there were several candidates, none of whom were returned, who ran upon more or less advanced programmes drawn up by themselves, and, in the great majority of cases, without any real working-men’s organisations at their back. Many of these candidates ran with money found by individuals, in no sense under the control of any working-class organisation. In two cases alone were candidates successful, who were avowed Socialists, and distinctly stated their antagonism to both the old political parties. Even in these two cases the programmes were not one and the same in detail although they were in principle. In each case the candidate was violently opposed by the Liberal Party, and in each case, when that party found that the Socialist candidate was too strong for them, they at last withdrew their own candidates, and after the elections actually counted the result as Liberal victories.

This election again brought home to us the great difficulties under which working-class candidates and their supporters labour at elections. We have no second ballot; the registration of electors is incomplete and unjust; elections do not all take place on the same day; plural voting is allowed; the costs of election, which are compulsory and have to be borne by the candidate, are enormous. Reform in all these matters is absolutely essential before there can be in this country any serious working-class representation. Parliamentary measures dealing with these questions of suffrage are of quite as much importance as those dealing with economic questions such as the eight hours. And the practical working man sees plainly that, whilst he must never relax his efforts to obtain the ultimate aims of Socialism, he will never get these unless he will take the trouble to attend to those political reforms that are inevitable first. As it has been well said, it is not good policy to let one’s self be seduced by the cry of “No political but economical reforms.” This means, of course, that you get neither. As long as the workers have not secured the political rights that will in turn secure them their economic rights their cry must be, “Political and economic reforms.”

Agricultural Labourers. In connection with the general election the agricultural labourer played a more prominent part than he has hitherto played. His vote, always given hitherto at the dictation of the farmer, the priest, the landlord, is now becoming an interesting problem. He is slowly waking up to the dim consciousness that his interests are not the same as those of the trio mentioned above; that his interests are the same as those of his brethren who have migrated into the towns. During the past two years very excellent work has been done by what are called the “red vans.” These are vans, appropriately painted red, in which some of the land nationalisers go about the country, stopping at the various towns and villages and holding meetings. At first the reception they met with was more warm than pleasant. But now they report generally large meetings, attention, and interest. Whilst they preach primarily, and as most immediately affecting the agricultural labourer, the nationalisation of the land, a good many of them, at all events, do not forget to speak at the same time of the nationalisation of the other “means.” As a measure of the amount of good work done by the vans, one of the nationalisers of the six that are on the road, between May 5th and July 9th, enrolled over 800 agricultural labourers in the Labourer’s Union. The men with the vans, besides speaking and enrolling, are collecting materials as to the condition of the labourers in different parts of the country that will be of great value when collated. The landlords are recognising this new and serious development. They, therefore, have made a bid to the labourers. They have founded a “National Agricultural Union” of landlords, farmers, and labourers all in one, to work for the common interest of them all. The more sensible farmers protest that there is no such common interest. But of much more importance than that is the fact that the labourers are beginning to recognise the same truth.

Independent Labour Party. In 1891, in the Brussels Report, it was stated that there was not as yet a single united working-class party in England. It was further stated that there was good augury “for the formation of a labour party distinct from all other political parties.” And it was pointed out that the feeling of class-consciousness among the workers was undoubtedly beginning. In the present Report, as already has been stated, it must still be said that there is not as yet one single party. But it has also to be noted that a new organisation, the Independent Labour Party, has been formed. The formation of this new party is fulfilment of the augury, and is evidence that the class-consciousness of the workers is passing from the dim to the clear stage. Upon January 13th and 14th, 1893, at Bradford, in Yorkshire, a Conference of 115 delegates took place. 91 of these represented branches which had already been formed provisionally of the Independent Labour Party. The other 24 came from various organisations pledged to political independence in the interests of labour. At this Conference it was agreed to formally start an Independent Labour Party, and it was decided by the Conference that its object “shall be to secure the collective ownership of all the means of production, distribution and exchange.” The party has already a large number of adherents and branches, especially in the north and midlands of England, and is endeavouring, by education and organisation, to prepare for the running and supporting, at all kinds of elections, candidates pledged to the objects of the Independent Labour Party, and entirely apart from either of the old political parties.

In this connection it must be noted that, besides the Independent Labour Party, there is more than one organisation in this country working along the same lines but not necessarily affiliated to the new organisation. Such organisations as the Social Democratic Federation, the various local Labour Leagues in London and other towns, such as the Battersea, Woolwich, Poplar, &c., the Bloomsbury Socialist Society, and the Legal Eight Hours and International Labour League, all of which have always recognised the necessity of a distinct Party, have done excellent work in different directions. It is hoped that ultimately all the bodies having the common end in view may be united into one great, powerful, irresistible British Labour Party.

Internationalism. It is very satisfactory to note that the feeling of International brotherhood between the workers of different countries is growing more and more strongly in this country. A few years ago the rank and file of the working men regarded any worker of another nation as “a foreigner,” with a strong adjective in front of it, while their leaders talked largely “of the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists.” Now the workers are beginning to understand that the “foreign” workers and themselves are really one and the same, and when such words as those just quoted are used to a conference of workers they are met with shouts of indignation. Any reference nowadays to the workers and the working-class movement in other countries is almost invariably received with cordiality and enthusiasm. News of how the movement is going on in other countries is eagerly sought after. The interest taken in the recent German elections, the delight with which the successes of the Socialists were received in working-class assemblies and associations, the speeches and messages of congratulation to our German comrades on their success—all this was quite a new feature in the movement in this country. The prominent organisations connected with the British movement sent letters of good wishes beforehand, or of congratulations after, to the German Social Democrats. And, for the first time in the history of the workers’ political movement, this country sent a monetary contribution to the Socialist Election Fund. That contribution, small in itself, but, let us hope, “the cloud no bigger than a man’s hand” that is precursor of greater things, was sent by the Independent Labour Party.

There has been during the past two years a great advance in the international organisation of particular trades and industries, Far more trades are now organised upon an international basis than there were when the Congress last met. An interesting proof of this is given in the large number of Congresses of particular trades that have been arranged for at Zürich during the week of the great General Congress. At most, if not at all, of these side Congresses British workers will be represented. Besides these Congresses at Zürich, International Miners’ Congresses have been held more than once since 1891, and one of these Congresses met in London. The International Union of Glassworkers also held a Congress recently in the same city.

These International Unions are not mere associations in talk. They are doing most important, practical work, and the spirit of internationalism has grown so far, that the machinery and funds of the workers of the different countries are largely at the disposal of one another. Thus, during the French Polishers’ strike in England, the Germans carefully blocked the port of Hamburg as far as the transmigration of German workers to England was concerned. During the last year or so the Glassworkers of the Continent had many great labour disputes; in all these they received constant and substantial aid from the British. This year came the turn of the British Glassworkers. They were out for sixteen weeks. During that time help, in the shape of money, came again and again from France, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Australia.

The Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union especially among Trades’ Unions is in close touch with the Continental movement; and at the recent anniversary of this Union, for the first time in history, there was the singular spectacle of three Socialist Members of Parliament, from three different countries (France, Germany, England) speaking from the same platform.

At the demonstration in favour of the Legal Eight Hours in London, during the last two years, one of the platforms of the Demonstration Committee has been known as the International Platform. At it speeches have been made by, or letters read from, Socialist representatives of the following nations:— Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Great Britain and Ireland.

In conclusion. The most striking points in connection with the movement here during the last two years are the unmistakable rapidity with which capitalist society, in this country as elsewhere, goes staggering to its doom; the increased recognition on both sides of the class fight; the consequent increase in the sharpness and bitterness of that fight; the undisguised use by the master class of the police and military machinery against the workers; the great strides made by the Eight Hours’ movement; the awakening of the agricultural labourers; the clearer marking off of a Working-class Party from both the old parties ; the steady and increasingly-rapid spread of Socialistic ideas, and, necessarily with this, the growth of an international spirit of fraternity between the British workers and those of other lands. That international spirit of fraternity will be fostered and strengthened by the Zürich Congress. And the national movement also always increases in strength and enthusiasm as the result of these international gatherings. The delegates return from them with clearer heads, happier hearts, with energy and spirit renewed, to again take part with fresh vigour and with larger hope in the great struggle that is at once national and international.