Labor’s Struggle in Great Britain

“Would you be able to find the time to contribute a series of articles to Torch and Trumpet describing the history and principles of Christian trade unionism?”

This question came to us from the publishers of this periodical.

I have not hesitated in accepting this invitation since I feel that the social problem, despite its great prominence in the United States and Canada, has up till now not found in Christian circles the interest it deserves. Probably this is due to the fact that this problem presents itself on this continent in another form and under different circumstances than was the case in Europe a century or longer ago. Over there it was the general misery and the poverty-stricken condition of the masses that aroused a feeling of compassion and charity in the hearts of Christian men and women, giving them a strong impulse to help. The working classes were seen as “sheep without a shepherd.” Here, in the United States and Canada, the employees have mighty organizations which know, under their strong leaders, how to force their demands through. Consequently, it seems unnecessary to support them, and often appears necessary rather to resist them.

In such a situation the question which sincere Christians must consider is: “What is the right attitude to take toward the social problem in these days?”

Golden Threads

There are two golden threads running through the historical pattern of Christian social action. The first is the thread of Christian charity and compassion for the needy, with respect to both their material and spiritual needs. From the Scriptures we learn that Jesus ministered to such folk while he was on earth. Three times in Matthew alone we read that he felt a deep compassion for the multitudes “because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32). So Christ healed the sick, made the lame to walk, and preached the Gospel to the poor. He left this example to his disciples, to his church, to us. Or is there no such task any more in wealthy America? Has the world and the multitude changed one bit since Jesus was on earth, either in a material or spiritual respect?



The second thread is that of justice and righteousness. 

How can we best help the multitudes? By deeds of charity only? When we describe presently the history of Christian social action we shall see that justice did arise out of charity. Therefore Christian compassion became a real challenge for Christian action. To illustrate: If there are many automobile accidents in a certain area because the roads are defective, can we limit our duty to merely sending out the ambulance and the wrecker, or is our primary duty the repairing and improvement of the roads? In other words, if social misery is caused by sinful neglect, by evil conditions and circumstances in the world, are we to combat and improve them, or not?

To ask these questions is to answer them!

Source of Information

Now there is but one reliable source from which to get the information for the construction of a better world and for the improvement of social relationships. That source is the Bible, the Word of God. Therefore only those who are prepared by grace to live up to that Word can show the way and should lead the way to that better world. As Moses had to make the tabernacle according to the pattern which was shown him on the holy mountain, so we as disciples of Christ must go to God to find the pattern for human conduct as he wills it.

Working according to that pattern with such principles—that is Christian social action!

19th Century Conditions

On my desk before me lies a book written by the principal of an Amsterdam Christian training school for teachers. This book represents a course of study compiled a number of years ago designed for the use of members of a Christian trade union. It is entitled: Course in Social Literature. As such it furnishes a compilation of Netherlands social literature, covering about seven centuries (from the 13th to the 20th). Once you have started to read this volume you can hardly stop from devouring it all in one sitting.

On every page the black misery of the poor is described. Who are “the poor”? Especially with the advent of the machine age they were the laboring classes. During the last century (the 19th) in the Netherlands one did not speak merely of such as “workers” but rather, and commonly, of the “destitute workers.” Destitute, needy, poor—those were the adjectives inseparably connected with the laborer.

vVe find that to be the case not only in Dutch literature but also in the literature of other countries. The well-known Charles Dickens describes in David Copperfield those weak and wrecked persons, at the mercy of a cruel social set-up which he knew personally. Victor Hugo, called the master of the French novelists, wrote his Les Miserables (The Miserable Ones) in 1862. By reading these books we get an insight into the destruction which took place in the lives of creatures made by God as caused by sinful conditions in society.

In order to determine the spirit of the 19th century in which the Christian trade union movement had its roots I want, first of all, to make a few general remarks regarding the philosophy of the 18th an 19th centuries. After that our second main purpose will be to give a brief outline of the economic and social situation in those European countries in which Christian social action was begun.

The Enlightenment

The 18th century is the age of the philosophy of the En’lightenment (Die Autklaerung), a philosophy which did away with God and with religion. Reason, human thinking had no need of religion, said the men of the Enlightenment movement. For neither by perception of the senses nor by revelation is true knowledge possible. The truth is produced only in the way of human thinking. Man’s rational spirit can and will reveal the substantial meaning of things and the world. This type of rationalism,1 which we can only indicate here, had a great influence throughout the 19th century. It destroyed Christian faith, saturated the churches, slaying its thousands spiritually. It had the great and terrible French Revolution as a consequence. As a result of its undermining of the Christian faith it produced a rationalist 19th century with the awful motto: “No God and No Master!” (ni Dieu ni maitre).

Rationalism had also a great influence in economics, which is that branch of science dealing with the conditions and laws affecting the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and wealth. So we see the development of the Physiocratic School and the Manchester School in economics, both borrowing their ideas from the same individualistic idea of natural law as preached by the French Encyclopedists. Especially the theories of Adam Smith and his followers—the classical or liberal school in economics—had an all-dominating influence on economic science and practice. In such thought the starting point was the so-called “economic man” (homo oeconomicus),2 that is, the theory that men always act according to and because of economic considerations, as dictated by their own self-interests.

Although this homo oeconomicus is a niere creation of the mind, the idea represented by this term was and is of far-reaching significance. In terms of this interpretation we get the slog”an: Everyone knows his own best interest, everyone seeks his own interest, everyone knows best, therefore, how to protect his own interest. If only we let everything go its own natural course (laissel faire, laisser passer) we will get to a perfect world. Natural law will straighten out everything inevitably. If these ideas are put into effect—as they have bee—we get a society in which there is a predominant striving of every man against his neighbor with a view to the survival of the fittest and the perishing of the rest. This was the leading economic theory brought into practice throughout the 19th century.

The Social Situation in Europe

Let us now take an over-all look at the economic and social situation in Europe to see how these theories worked out in various countries.

During the Middle Ages the rising trades and crafts had been bound together in a system which guaranteed sound development and brought prosperity to the populace. This was the guild system.3

The system existed for some four or five centuries during which it promoted the growth of handicraft to a high degree. The guild system was an excellent means to create order and law in the trades and professions and to check abuses. Both masters and men had no reason for complaint. Their wages and working-hours were fixed, and the hours, though rather long, were spent in a quiet atmosphere and the work itself was varied in nature. In winter the working hours were necessarily shortened because of the lack of adequate lighting. The number of holidays in which work was suspended was—because of the many church feasts—large. In spite of the existence of many regulations there was freedom of labor and free competition.

The guilds, however, just as any other human institution, were composed of sinful human creatures who, towards the end of their history especially, were inclined to abuse their privileges. They gained great power, in politics as well as trade. But when gradually handicraft was replaced by a more organized though small type of industry the guilds did not find ways and means to alter their regulations and methods in due time. Already in the 17th and still more in the 18th centuries they were regarded as a nuisance by the developing trades. By the time that the laws in different countries were changed to prohibit every similar type of association (in the name of “liberty”) as a result of the growing influence of such new ideas as those of the Physiocrats, the guilds were for the greater part already dissolved. They had done an excellent job, however, in the prosperous era which they served. We will see presently as a contrast the kind of prosperity and happiness which resulted from a philosophy which trusted in the operations of “natural law.” Reviewing these results caused a great Christian statesman, none other than G. Groen van Prinsterer, in 1850 to exclaim: “Is there not a means to revive in some form or other the associations which have fallen under the hammer-strokes of the Industrial Revolution?”—thereby referring to the guilds.

Great Britain

In 1769 James Watt invented the steam-powered engine. The discovery and application of this invention precipitated an industrial revolution of undreamed of proportions. Many other inventions in the 18th and 19th centuries “changed the face” of industry. Especially in the textile industry, in which Great Britain had a foremost position, many inventions were applied which increased production considerably. As a result the place of labor in industry was completely changed. Many workers who had found their living in handwork became unemployed. Sharp resistance against the use of the machine arose on the part of the workers who could foresee nothing but a future of large if not complete unemployment. Many machines were wrecked, and only the imposing of the most severe penalties—even punishment by death—could put an end to such action.

We know now that mechanical production has been a great boon so far as the increase of production and of higher living standards is concerned but neither the workingmen nor the owners of the machines could foresee that at the time of the inception of these new methods. Resistance against the machine abated, however, when the establishment of new factories began to take up more workers. Fact is that between 1750 and 1847 the number of workers in the cotton industry in Great Britain and Ireland increased from 8,000 to 1,500,000.

But new grievances arose which were not to be solved easily.

The use of machines involves a new division of labor since it calls mostly for unskilled labor. The owners of the machines and the factories in their striving for higher profits hired many women and children. In addition, the purchase of machinery called for the expenditure of large sums of money which the employers were only too eager to earn back as quickly as possible by instituting long working hours, night and shift-work.

No laws or regulations prohibited these practices. Applying “natural law” in the name of liberty (no one should be hampered in the pursuit of his objectives) no protection was furnished for labor whatsoever. It was indeed “laisser faire, laisser passer.”

“Wage Slavery”

It is to these times that the term “wage slavery” is perfectly applicable. Actually, however, the situation was worse than in the times of actual slavery! In those days the slave was his master’s capital with which he had to be economical for his own self-interest. But the British factory-owner did not have to be economical in the use and treatment of his workers. Every dead worker could be replaced by another without cost. The cotton factories of Lancashire had a con tract with London orphanages for the delivery of their charges to the factories. Large numbers of these children were regularly transported at the request of the factory owners, and when the children had died new shipments followed.

This practice was in conformity with the theory developed by Malthus. He wrote in his book, Essay on the Principles of Population, that there was an over-population of the world which could only be overcome by applying “natural law.” Misery, starvation, and other social evils would bring the population of the world to a lower level. Then by a sensible education of the rest the birth rate could be reduced and the total population would come to its “natural” level.

In 1819 a law was passed prohibiting child labor in factories below the age of nine years. The Morals and Health Act of 1802 limited the work of older children to only (!) 12 hours a day, but there was no enforcement of the application of this law. The captains of industry paid no heed to these laws. The children worked from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. right along with adults. Industry depended on children—without them the work could not go on. Official reports tell us of children aroused at two, three, four o’clock in the morning, their sleep-drugged, fatigue-paralyzed bodies forced to work for ten, eleven, twelve hours.

Women and girls were forced to work by night as well as day.

Beginnings of Marxianism

It was especially these conditions which inspired Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to formulate their socialistic ideas. Marx and Engels spent a large part of their life in England. They were children of their time, and one can understand how that they saw but one solution: the complete annihilation of the then present society and the establishment of an altogether new one. Their Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, concluded with the words: “Workers of all countries, unite!” Probably they never dreamed that their ideas would one time shake the nations to their very foundations. Their call found response!

Other social reformers—of whom we mention now only Robert Owen, a British employer, who reduced working hours in his own factory to ten and one-half hours per day and did not employ children below the age of ten years—were moved to fight labor conditions in England at that time.

The workers themselves also rose to fight against the terrible labor conditions and its subsequent misery for them. Between the years 1800 to 1850, roughly, Great Britain was in a state of perpetual revolution. Strikes and deeds of violence regularly took place. In 1834 the Poor Law, dating from the 16th century, was abolished. This law stipulated that the boards of the churches in the event that employees received wages from their employers below a certain standard had to pay an allowance making up the difference. Many employers abused this law, but it did do some good for the workers. After the abolition of this law the general misery of the workers became still worse. In fact, authors of that time say that the prevailing misery became unbearable.

Another peoples’ movement was the strong revolutionary action of the Chartists, who succeeded in 1839 to take possession of the city of Birmingham, which they began to plunder. In other places, too, the Chartists organized revolts which had to be suppressed by violence.

A Christian Social Movement

Here we must mention the work the clergymen, F.C. Maurice and Charles Kingsley, and of the lawyer, Ludlow, who started a Christian social movement.

The so-called Chartists were members of the “Working Men’s Association” which was striving after political influence and power. Not all the members were in sympathy with the use of acts of violence. There were two groups, namely, the “physical force party” (which prepared for revolution by means of armed forces) and the “moral force party,” which expected more of moral persuasion, education, trade unions, and political organization.

In the latter group (the “moral force party”) these three men, Maurice, Kingsley, and Ludlow, exercised a great influence. They preached that improvement of the situation could not be attained by violence or even by a change in the conditions themselves, but had to come by way of a change in the innermost hearts of men. Kingsley took a sharp stand against those who taught that changed conditions would be a suitable means for the changing of men, a theory which was later put forth by Karl Marx and has been adopted as a law by Marxists recognized by them even today.

The following statement once made by Kingsley gives a clear view of his principles:

I acknowledge, friends, that it is infinitely cheaper and easier to be reformed by the Devil than to be reformed by God. For God is not willing to reform society except on the condition that each man reforms his own self—whereas the Devil is prepared to be helpful in reforming the law, parliament, heaven, and earth without mentioning even a single word of such a shameless demand, which refers to us personally: that everyone should have to reform himself first of all. Yea, the freedom of the individual will always be respected by Satan.

The influence of these three men on the development of the British trade unions has been notable in spite of the fact that they had to fight on two fronts. On the one hand there were the workers, who were suspicious of them. They did not expect much of Christians and of the church, which always takes the part of the rich. On the other hand there were the well-to-do people, who considered them to be dangerous demagogues. But they went forward to advocate the cause of Christian social action in their sermons on Sundays, in public meetings, in their writings in the daily press, and in organizing those whom they could reach.

The miserable conditions under which the London tailors existed, for example, inspired Kingsley to publish an article in the Morning Chronicle. As a result many tailors joined the movement, and the co-operative started by him gained many customers. He called the movement later “The Christian Socialist Movement”—using the word “socialist” in the same sense as was done later by Dr. Abraham Kuyper at the First Christian Social Congress in 1891. Kingsley and his partners had to struggle against the individualistic theories of the 19th century, of which we wrote above, and in place of them they advocated a common spirit of fellowship between the classes.

Published articles describing the plight of the workers and their families as well as the brilliant eloquence of the Rev. Mr. Kingsley opened the eyes of many. Among the workers sympathy for the three men grew, but so did the opposition on the part of the leaders of the Anglican church.

Maurice was dismissed as professor at King’s College. He had lectured for the workers in special courses on Christian social principles, sociaI science, and economics. When he was dismissed a petition signed by one thousand workers and supported by many more thousands requested continued instruction. This led to the foundation of a People’s University: “the working man’s college.” One year after his dismissal at King’s College Maurice was nominated to a professorship in Ethics at Cambridge University and also became pastor of St. Peter’s Church, London.

The influence of Kingsley, Maurice, and Ludlow on the British labor movement is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the revolutionary tendencies which affected the trade unions on the European continent so intensely did not make much headway in the British unions, at least not during the first decades. The theories of Karl Marx had for a long time no influence in that movement.

On the Wrong Track

This situation (the suppression of revolutionary, Marxist influence) was not to be maintained, however.

Although a number of the British trade union leaders are Christians, their influence in later years is no longer perceptible. The large coal strike in 1926 had a strong revolutionary tendency. During the last war a mutual council was set up between the British and the Russian trade unions, which has led to close co-operation between the two. The close relations with the Russians, the trip of Sir Walter Citrine, president of the British trade unions, to Moscow, etc., did not fail to have effect. The British labor leaders in 1944 promoted very vigorously the organization of the World Federation of Trade Unions in which Communists held the leading posts. Nearly all the labor organizations in the different countries were affiliated with this World Federation with the exception of the Christian trade unions and the American Federation of Labor. The W.F.T.U. once counted about seventy million (70,000,000) members.

A conflict arose in the board of the W.F.T.U. in 1948 when the administrators of the Marshall Plan called for the cooperation of the trade unions. The board of theW.F.T.U. asked for discussion of the matter. So strong was the influence of Russia that the general secretary, Louis Saillant, under instructions from Moscow, could prevent any discussion of the Marshall Plan notwithstanding the fact that an Englishman was the president! This led to an open rupture, concerning which we may write later. The Western trade unions then set up the International Federation of Free Trade Unions with strong sponsorship of the American unions, including the American Federation of Labor. This International Federation ‘now comprises the socialist trade unions of the European continent and the American unions (A.F. of L. and C.I.O.).

Let us—after this side trip—return to the British trade unions. There are more evidences of the influence of revolutionary tendencies.

This tendency is personified now in that prominent British Labor leader: Aneurin Bevan of the Transport Workers, who was Minister of Health in the last Labor cabinet. His opposition to the Labor Party is well-known. Though he is not a Communist, he is supported by Communist leaders in the trade unions. What course will these trade unions take? The policy of the present British unions is an unstable one and has been so for many years. This is a consequence of the fact that there is no leading principle, or, at least, no Christian principle.

Our brief exposition of social conditions in Great Britain during the period of industrialization together with a few remarks regarding the development of the British trade unions in later years is herewith ended.

No other country in Europe reached an equally high stage of development in industrialization at so early a time as did Great Britain. Great Britain has in many respects always been different from the other European, continental countries.

But Great Britain has not been different in two respects, which we wish to emphasize. First of all, it was not different as regards the hardship and suffering which the working class experienced in the period of industrialization and under the free reign of Enlightenment rationalism. And second, it was not different in that it exposes a lack of Christian social understanding on the part of the official church, in spite of which a small number of Christian men, living out of the Spirit of our merciful High priest, Jesus Christ, worked faithfully to resist the public opinion and common mind of their time.

In the next article we will examine the historical situation as it developed in France, Germany, and Holland.

1. The theory that reason is a source of knowledge in itself, superior to and independent of sense perceptions or revelation.

2. See in this issue “The Christian Rejection of Economic Man” by W. Stanford Reid.

3. The guilds were associations of craftsmen or merchants which controlled the quality and/ or market of their particular trade.