Pamphlet Review: The British Labour Movement
The British Labour Movement. By Frederick Engels. (Published by Martin Lawrence, Ltd. 1s.)
The above booklet contains eleven articles written by Engels and published in the Labour Standard during 1881. This journal was an attempt of the London Trades Council to provide a working-class organ in this country. The people in control of the paper were not, however, Socialists, but tended to support Gladstone, the Liberal. Hence it is not surprising that soon Engels’ contributions to the Labour Standard caused concern to these champions of the working class, and he was requested to tone down his writings. This Engels refused to do. As a result, he ceased to contribute articles to the Labour Standard.
The first four articles deal with the wages system and the trade unions. Engels shows how, under capitalism, there is a class struggle between the working class and capitalist class, between those “people deprived of all property in the means of production, owners of nothing but their own working power ” and “the monopolisers of the whole of the means of production, land, raw materials, machinery” (p. 12).
Engels shows how the trade unions have helped their members to maintain their standard of life in this struggle, but it is pointed out that, despite their fight of sixty years against capital, the trade unions have been unable to raise the working class above the situation of wage slaves (p. 12), and that any advantage gained by the workers through their unions is brought to nothing by the crises which occur periodically. Then, the fight has to be undertaken again. In this never-ending struggle with the capitalist class, the workers are at a disadvantage. First, the army of unemployed help to keep down wages: workers compete for jobs, and this enables the capitalist class to enforce lower wages. Again, if the employer and his workpeople do not agree over wages, and there is a strike, the former have the advantage, for they “can afford to wait, and live on their capital. The workman cannot. He has but wages to live upon, and must therefore take work when, where, and at what terms he can get it.. . . He is fearfully handicapped by hunger ” (p. 10).
In face of this, Engels’ advice to the working class is clear. It cannot hope for an end to its misery and striving under capitalism. It must abolish capitalism and establish Socialism; it must “become the owner of all the means of work—land, raw material, machinery, etc.—and, thereby, owner of the whole of the produce of its own labour.” To do this, the workers must organise politically, because “a struggle between two great classes of society necessarily becomes a political struggle,” and they must win political power “to become enabled to change existing laws in conformity with their own interests and requirements.”