The Labour Movement in England

Peter Kropotkin

“Le Mouvement Ouvrier En Angleterre”, La Révolte: Organe Communiste-Anarchiste, 13 September 1890

The Trades-Union Congress had a very special relevance this year. Following these congresses for fifteen years, we initially saw them representing 600,000 workers. Then, the number of workers represented was reduced by half. At the same time, apart from the miners and the mechanics of the North, these congresses increasingly represented the privileged worker, the one who has a more or less secure job and who is relatively well paid. The parliamentary committee of the trades unions became more and more a branch of the liberal party, that is to say, of the bourgeoisie. And the delegates themselves, received at banquets by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, rubbing shoulders with the Prince of Wales and upper-class gangsters in general, became more and more bourgeois. For the workers more miserable than them, for the day labourers and for women who toil in the factories, they had nothing but contempt. It was the nascent fourth estate; haughty and selfish of course.

But this year, everything has changed. We recall the women’s strike in the match factories of that arch-exploiter, the Bryant and May Company, and the pressure that Mrs. Besant had to exert on the Trades-Union Committee to force it to support the strike and to recognise the Young Matchmakers Union as part of the unions in general.[1]

 Then came the great movement of the dockworkers and the great strike in London.

Like a wildfire that ignites at the slightest spark, the movement spread throughout England. Dedicated man and women understood that any socialist or even unionist (to raise wages) movement will fail as long as a great army of unprivileged workers remains outside the movement. As long as there are millions of unskilled day labourers and women who have never heard of, not only socialism, but even the simple possibility of rebelling against exploitation and fighting by uniting – it is useless to dream of a thorough revolution, these men and women said to themselves. And they went to organising just those workers – day labourers, unskilled toilers, ship loaders, navvies, and so on.

It is good to imagine that popular movements are self-made. Nothing is more comfortable to excuse doing nothing.

Historians have even made this a whole theory that many socialists share only too much.

It is enough, according to the lazy, that there is misery for the enraged brute, the “lower class” (this is the language of the academics) to revolt.

Nothing is more demoralising, nothing is more harmful that this way of seeing things. Time and time again we have said, and we never stop repeating it, that if a sudden misery surprises, it can awaken the spirit of revolt. But a gradual misery which creeps little by little into workers’ households, demoralises them; it renders them incapable of rebelling; it kills their energy. Every popular awakening has always coincided with periods of increased well-being and the awakening of hope.

This is what happened in England. The recovery of industry arriving after the crisis of 1884-1886, awakened the energy of the workers most familiar with misery. Hope has awakened. And then there were men and women – a considerable number of volunteers – who, not belonging to any of the socialist parties inclined to forget the masses for electoral victories, began to organise the most poorly paid trades, those which do not require an apprenticeship and are recruited from the poorest sections of the proletariat.

Whatever the criticism revolutionary socialists level at [John] Burns and at so many other dedicated men and women who have done as he has done, it is certain that all of them have done more to awaken the most wretched and most intractable masses to socialism than all the socialists taken together.

It is good to say that the people will awaken by themselves. But you have to give twenty, thirty speeches a week in the open air, you have to live with the masses, be with them in their dark hovels, patiently listen to the arguments, even though to us socialists and especially anarchists they seem childish. You have to call meetings, talk to them – not philosophy, but a language that can be understood. In short, you have to devote yourself body and soul to this work, endure all the fatigue and all the setbacks, before you get any result.

That is what a whole legion of men and women who do not even dare call themselves socialists have been doing for the past two years in England.

And when socialists come to reproach them for not having given the movement a more revolutionary or more socialist character, they could well answer:

“But why the devil did you not do the same thing! Why did you not use the same energy to reach the masses? Why, instead of discussing or writing endlessly, did you not go every evening and every morning to work amongst those who are resistant to socialism, instead of spending your evenings amongst friends already won over to your causes?”

If, instead of [trade] unionists, it had been socialists or anarchists who had done the same work, the tendency of the masses would already be more socialist and more anarchist than it is at present. The republicans before 1789 had worked well in the countryside to prepare it for the revolution. It is our turn to do the same work amongst the masses resistant to anarchy, to communism and even to socialism, if we want to prepare a communist revolution.


In any case, returning to the [trade] unionist congress, held their year in Liverpool, this work has been done. This is why 1,470,000 workers found themselves represented at the congress instead of the three to four hundred thousand of previous years.

At the same time, the character of the congress has totally changed. The President’s opening speech was such that much of it could have been written by socialists. The new unions are no longer formed to guarantee everyone a few francs a week in the event of illness and enough to pay for more or less elegant undertakers. They are formed exclusively for the struggle against capital.

Finally, the eight-hour day will soon be a given. The English workers do not yield: eight hours for work, eight for sleep, eight for fun. The miners have decided not to work more than eight hours, the big trades agree and the eight-hour day, established in fact, will soon become a reality. On this, the one and a half million workers represented in the congress are in agreement.[2]

They also demand nationalisation of the land, of the mines and of the railways; the elimination of middlemen; production by municipalities, by cities of all that is necessary for the city’s consumption.

This is not socialism and even less anarchy. But it should also be noted that the majority of the unions are in agreement on this; while some unions are much more advanced.

In any case, this congress will make a mark in the history of the labour movement. It has broken the old [trade] unionist tradition. It opens a new path. It is now up to socialists to sow their ideas in this new environment which is no longer the former reactionary environment. And that is what a number of anarchists – and it must be said that they are multiplying rapidly – are already doing in the provinces.

The barrier that separated the [trade] unionists from the socialists is broken; and even the social democrats [in the provinces are not infatuated with parliamentarism. We could see it in the very heart of the [trade] unionist congress.

To sum up – we are faced with a great movement, certainly spontaneous, but immensely aided by a host of men and women, too modest to show off, who work every day to awaken the most miserable workers to get them to the stand together.

What will come out of this movement? It will depend on the energy that the socialist workers display now. If the socialists are energetic, the first victory of the proletarians – the eight-hour day – will not satisfy them. They will go further; the idea of the communist commune is already germinating in people’s minds. Will it ripen? That will depend largely upon us.

End Notes

[1] The Union of Women Match Workers was formed following the successful matchgirls strike at the Bryant and May factory in Bow, London. Its first secretary was Annie Besant and by October of 1888, 666 members had been enrolled. It changed its rules and name, becoming the Matchmakers Union, open to both men and women by the end of 1888 and the following year saw it sent its first delegate to the Trade Union Congress. (Translator)

[2] Writing in Freedom in October 1907, Kropotkin recalled how “[p]etty electoral considerations took the place of the outspoken revolutionary language of the previous years… And when, in the year 1890, the First of May movement reached this country, and the workers rushed in their hundreds of thousands to the First of May demonstration, with the hope of bringing out in this way a General Strike and obtaining a great victory, cold water was again thrown on their enthusiasm by their leaders, who came to say: “No General Strike! A General Strike is general nonsense! Send us to Parliament, and we shall get you in due time the Legal Eight Hours!Freedom fiercely combated that policy; but the force was theirs; they won the day ― and they buried the Eight Hour movement.” (“1886-1907: Glimpses into the Labour Movement in this Country”, Direct Struggle Against Capital, 396-7). (Translator)