Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson, in their articles recently published in nlr, have identified the third quarter of the 19th century as the period in which ‘corporativism’ gained its fatal grip on the British working class. The socialist revival of the 1880’s was an aberration which quickly subordinated itself, in the Labour Party, to the ‘matrix of labourism . . . the structures and outlook already created by the workers in their struggle as a subordinate class.’ Royden Harrison’s book Before the Socialists provides an opportunity to take a fresh look at these ‘struggles as a subordinate class’ and to judge the extent of their formative influence on the Labour movement.¹
In an excellent introduction, Harrison describes the Labour aristocracy, whose emergence as a distinct and self-conscious social group above all characterizes the period. Trade unionism was, by and large, confined to the skilled workers, and there was a far greater gulf fixed between the artisan and the labourer, than between the former and the small masters, clerks and tradesmen of the ‘lower-middle class’. But, cut off as it was from the mass of the working class, as a political force this aristocracy was the working class. ‘Socially and industrially the labour aristocracy took care to separate itself from the vast labouring majority, but in politics it sometimes found it convenient to pose as the authentic spokesman of the working classes as a whole. It was encouraged in this by some of its advisors, who began by arguing that the “best part of the working classes” are the fittest to exert political influence; “the superior order of workmen” possessed higher social sympathies and a more practical knowledge of social misery than other classes. These sympathies and this knowledge “identified” the labour aristocracy with the vast labouring majority.’ The working class politics of this period were very largely the politics of the labour aristocracy.
Harrison is subtle and penetrating as a political historian. The three essays which make up the core of the book—on the British reaction to the American Civil War, the Reform Bill, and the election of 1868— make rewarding reading for anyone interested in the dialectics of political alignment, as well as being important contributions to a very neglected period in the history of working-class politics. Running through the political narrative is the development of the outlook of the labour aristocracy, crystallizing in the Lib-Labism of the late 1870’s and beyond.
Historians have agreed that the response of the British working class to the American Civil War was overwhelmingly pro-Northern. On the face of it, they have been wrong. Harrison shows that, ‘It is a problem to find a single influential working-class paper which consistently favoured Lincoln and opposed British intervention. The predominant tendency was decidedly the other way. . .’ On the other hand the record of the mass meetings of the period conclusively demonstrates the pro-Northern sympathies of the mass of the workers. Harrison sets about explaining this paradox “in terms of rival estimates of where the “workers” interests stood in relation to other “mutually hostile” classes,’ i.e. whether the landed oligarchy or the manufacturing capitalists represented the main enemy of labour. To those labour leaders who had attained political maturity during the fight against the New Poor Law, and the competition of Bright and Cobden with the Chartist and factory reform movements, the North stood for all that they most hated—entrepreneurial capitalism exploiting a blackleg labour force recruited from the scum of the European continent, crusading, with the hypocrisy they had known in Wilberforce, for an end to chattel slavery, only to further the cause of wage slavery.