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The Emergence of Socialism

By: Chris Hogan MSc - Updated: 12 Mar 2018 | comments*Discuss
Workers' Rights Industrial Revolution

As the Industrial Revolution was getting under way in Great Britain some enlightened factory owners and politicians were seeking to reform conditions for the working classes by providing decent living and working conditions, then influencing Parliament to pass laws that restricted the hours that children, women and finally men were allowed to work.

Thinkers and Philosophers

At the same time, thinkers and philosophers were crystallising the ideas that were emerging and populating them around Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution. One of the effects of the technological age was that communication became easier, as it was cheaper to produce newsletters or pamphlets, and dispersing them was faster. As increasing numbers of people had been through at least some education, these pamphlets were more widely read, and for those who couldn’t read, speakers were able to travel far and wide, too. Thus the dissemination of ideas became easier.

The key concepts that came together in socialism were equality, anti-religion and communal ownership of property. Many thinkers were involved in the process but the defining tract was the 'Communist Manifesto' produced by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in 1848. Although labelled Communist, the utopia described did not bear much relation to the totalitarian dictatorships that quickly took over Russia in the 20th Century after the revolution.

Growth and Spread of Socialism

Socialism took hold in Germany and formed the basis of new unions and political parties. This spread across Europe but was stalled in the United Kingdom, where a moderate union movement known as the New Model Unions held sway until after the First World War. Despite that, one of the Great Britain's foremost reformers, Robert Owen, a factory owner in Scotland, also credited as one of the fathers of the cooperative movement, was heavily involved in the process.

Socialist thinkers held against the effects of the Industrial Revolution, considering it to have increased the inequalities in society and the dislocation of communities with the rush to the cities. Marx and Engels popularised the concept of the inherent power of the workers and the potential of worker solidarity as a force that could be used to change working and living conditions.

Strikes Begin to Appear

This thinking informed more intense activism from the working classes in the United Kingdom around the turn of the Nineteenth Century, and the first successful strikes were recorded. In 1988 in London, the Bryant and May matchgirls staged a strike against working conditions, in particular the use of hazardous materials, poor pay and productivity fines. After three weeks the strike ended with all the strikers re-hired and the owners agreeing to stop the fine system, and some years later were able to stop using the most hazardous materials.

Meanwhile religious reformers, who could not embrace socialism in the Marxist sense because of its anti-religion stance, had begun to popularise the idea of Christian socialism in the UK. The matchgirls' success emboldened other workers such as the London gas workers, and the following year Tom Mann and Ben Tillet, both members of the Social Democratic Foundation, organised the London Dock Strike, which was successful in gaining a pay increase from 5d per hour to 6d.

The knock-on effects of the strike were wider, however, with unions being formed in other docks and other industries. A major development was the involvement of the seaman, probably the first example of other workers striking in solidarity.

Modern Trade Unions Emerge

The dockers gained immense public support as a result of the reporting of their working conditions and extreme poverty. The Catholic Church aligned itself with the strikers, causing the Pope to come out three years later in support of the improvement of working conditions. These events laid the grounds for the modern trade movement to emerge.

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