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.

To the new generation of labour leaders, the leaders of a growing and increasingly prosperous labour aristocracy, ‘it was mere rhetoric to suggest that slavery and wage labour differed only in form, or that North and South were equally tyrants over human labour’. Having little or no experience of the great struggles of the first half of the century, they had no objections to an alliance with capitalism in the North, and, as this necessarily implied, with Bright and the radical bourgeoisie at home. Indeed a political alliance with the strata above them came more naturally to the labour aristocrats than one involving a distinct class identity with the mass of unskilled workers. Both Bright and the labour aristocrats saw the landed oligarchy as their main enemy, and while both, therefore, enthusiastically supported the organization of rural labourers, neither was interested in the organization of labourers in the towns.

Already, in its response to the American Civil War, the main lines of the political outlook of the labour aristocracy were drawn, but it was in the struggles for Reform, which followed the War, that the political role of the aristocracy first achieved maturity and recognition. Harrison’s essay on this struggle refutes the ‘party manoeuvring’ interpretation of the Act. In a brilliant analysis of the great demonstration of May 6th, 1867, he shows the decisive role of mass working-class pressure in securing reform. ‘Of course,’ he writes, ‘party rivalries and calculations were important, but such rivalries and calculations all depended upon the stage of development attained by the Labour movement.’ And he elaborates this: ‘In the 1860’s the British working class exhibited certain “contradictory” characteristics. If it was increasingly “respectable”, it was increasingly well-organized. If it had abandoned its revolutionary ambitions, it had not wholly lost its revolutionary potentialities. It left no doubt that these potentialities might be speedily developed if it was too long thwarted in its desire to secure political equality. In short it had attained precisely that level of development at which it was safe to concede its enfranchisement and dangerous to withold it.’