Wednesday, June 13, 2012

History Corner: Syndicalism in Catford 1912-13

The period before the First World War is sometimes referred to as the 'Great Unrest' as the status quo of Edwardian Britain came under attack from suffragettes, Irish nationalists, and striking workers - in 1912 for instance there were major strikes in London on the docks and amongst tailors in the East End and West End.

Within the workers movement there was intense debate about the way forward. Was the answer to get workers representatives elected to Parliament, as the emerging Labour Party argued? Or was a more radical party committed to abolishing capitalism required? Another current, the syndicalists, argued that political parties were not the answer at all. Rather workers should organise at the point of production, and their industrial organisations would eventually take over the factories, workshops and offices to usher in a classless society.

Proponents of this idea - the best known of whom was Tom Mann (pictured) - formed the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, and published a newspaper 'The Syndicalist & Amalgamation News'.  Reports in this paper show that South East London was one of the areas where these debates were raging.

In December 1912, a Sunday night meeting at the Catford Clarion Club saw 'a large and enthusiastic audience assembled to hear an address by Guy Bowman on Syndicalism. Local enthusiasm had recently run high on the subject of Syndicalism. Previous lectures had centred around the questions of parliamentary action, and Syndicalism, Direct Action, and Sabotage'. The meeting was chaired by 'Comrade Richardson'. The syndicalists presciently criticised a form of socialism as top-down state management, with Bowman arguing at that meeting that this 'would lead the workers into a worse form of tyranny that at present, as at the head of each department of industry we should have a politician comfortably fixed in a job of which he knew no more about than the average chairman of a trust does about the industry form which he draws his profits' (The Syndicalist, January 1913).

Another meeting was held in the same place a few months later - 'The Syndicalist' report by 'Richardson' states that: 'The room was full at the meeting of the Catford Clarion Club on March 9 to listen to a lecture on Social Democracy. Owing to indisposition Guy Bowman was not able to attend, but from the enthusiasm accorded Nefydd Roberts this did not militate against the meeting. In a fighting speech lasting about an hour our "Bobs" put the Syndicalist position so convincingly as to carry the audience entirely with him. He showed how parliamentarianism had led workers up a cul-de-sac. The sending of men to a middle class environment so put them out of contact with the workers as to cause them not to represent the workers at all. He held up to ridicule the Socialists of the docketing type who regard mankind as so many units to be classified out of existence'.

'His constructive criticism was as strong as his destructive. The workers' great need was to unite in militant industrial organisations. Sabotage, the Irritation Strike, and all other means to train the workers to intelligent organisation were shown to be indispensable. The moral objection to these methods was well shown by reference to Lafargue's "My right to be lazy". The case was so strongly put that although the chairman appealed for opposition, it was not forthcoming, This should promise well for linking up of our Catford friends with the ISEL' ('The Syndicalist', March-April 1913)

The same issue also reported meetings at the Morris Hall in Clapham and in Walworth, with Olive Strong writing a report of Dave Armstrong's syndicalist speech at the latter.

I don't know where the Catford Clarion Club was, but the Clarion movement was a national network of socialist clubs (which incidentally included the Clarion Cycling Club).

Tom Mann and Guy Bowman (who spoke at the December 1912 Catford meeting) were among those jailed in 1912 for Incitement to Mutiny after calling on soldiers not to open fire on strikers. Mann went on to be a leading figure in the Communist Party and the National Unemployed Workers Movement, and later in the 1920s was living in Brockley (in 1927 his address was 1 Adelaide Road). His son Charlie Mann was involved in radical theatre troupe Lewisham Red Players in the 1930s

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