By Cathy Nugent
The socialist and trade union organiser Tom Mann was a rather exceptional person. Not because he was a great socialist theorist — although he published many pamphlets in the course of a political life which only ended when he died in 1941, as a member of the Communist Party.
Rather it is because, over sixty years, he was involved in most, if not all, of the significant working class organisations of that long period. He was prominent in the early Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, during the 1880s. He was a leader of the “new unionism” of the late 1880s. He was to the fore in the Independent Labour Party in the 1890s, in the “syndicalist” movement of the early twentieth century, and later still (though by then, elderly, more as a figurehead) in the Communist Party. To tell the story of Mann’s life is also to tell the story of how the working class in Britain struggled for an independent political voice.
Tom Mann was born near Coventry in 1856. His father was a clerk in a local colliery, his mother died when he was two and a half. Those were quiet times for working-class politics in Britain. The Chartists — the mass working class movement for social and political emancipation — was defeated in 1848 and was withering away. Ernest Jones, a committed socialist, tried to carry on the Chartist movement into the 1850s, but with little success.
Some of the ideas of the Owenite socialist movement (about “cooperatives”) continued to have some influence, but the movement itself was expiring.
But capitalism expanded and the trade union movement built up strength. In 1864 the “First International” was founded, the work of some London-based trade unionists and emigré socialists. Marx and Engels were able to work constructively within it, and intervene into some of the international movements attached to it. The Paris Commune took place in 1871, but the British trade unionists involved in the First International were definitely not revolutionaries.
By the early 1860s there was a renewed movement for parliamentary reform. The Liberal Party wanted the franchise for all “householders”. Another more radical strand of the reform movement initially demanded universal male suffrage (they later compromised on this).
Some workers, including ex-Chartists and the First International trade unionists, were involved in that movement. They took to the streets again to demand the vote.
The 1867 Reform Act was eventually passed by a Conservative government led by Disraeli. It gave the vote to all property owners and renters as long as their property or rent was worth a certain amount. One in three men — including the “respectable” working class — could now vote in urban areas.
Did people become socialists in Britain at this time? Yes, but the circumstances were difficult, and the absence of a working class movement committed to class struggle and political independence affected the way in which ideas could be discussed and worked out.
Like most working-class children Tom Mann had very little schooling — less than three years. But he took every opportunity available — using public libraries and attending Sunday school — to improve his learning.
Mann started work down a mine at ten. This was a period of widespread use of child labour — in all kinds of industries. It was the period before the Mines Regulation Act of 1872 made it illegal to employ children in mines under the age of 12. And it was before the Education Act of 1870, which (in law, if not often in practice) allowed for many schools to be built and children up to the age of 13 to be educated (education was not yet compulsory).
Mann’s work, on his hands and knees, pulling boxes of “dirt” strapped to his waist, was hard and potentially dangerous. But it was perhaps “preferable” to other kinds of child labour. Better than the work of boys who had to turn a loom handle for 12 hours a day in a “cottage” textile factory.
The colliery in which Mann worked was destroyed by fire and the family had to move to Birmingham. Mann now began as an engineering apprentice. This was a lucky break for him. He found the work interesting, the company of his workmates congenial.
As an apprentice Mann was not fully involved in the important trade union business of the men, and was thus only vaguely aware of the engineers successful national campaign for a nine hour day. But the effect of the reduction — the increase in leisure time— made Mann and his workmates extremely happy. Mann never forgot the importance of the struggle for reduced working hours.
For Mann the extra time was a chance above all to educate himself. He took up evening classes and further Bible classes (Mann remained a Christian, although he became deeply critical of church establishments). Of this time Mann wrote: “It was of great value to me that there was a fine Public Library at Birmingham… I read considerably, but not systematically. I knew nothing of Shelley; Ruskin only very superficially; and nothing whatever of Malthus or Marx. Still I was groping my way, if not directly, towards the light.”
Like many people forced to educate themselves, and without anyone to guide him, Mann eagerly took up those writers and ideas that were around him that were available and seemed like an approximation of his own thoughts and feelings about his life and environment. At this time the church was dominant in Mann’s life. Mann also became involved in the temperance movement and a vegetarian. He would attend meetings of the National Secular Society (its main spokesperson, Charles Bradlaugh, was very famous at the time).
Gradually Mann learned from, rejected and outgrew these early influences. In 1880, now fully qualified, Mann found work in London. He became more interested in social problems, particularly in unemployment — a time of economic instability and many workers were being laid off. He could not see how the Christian reformers and temperance activists were making the world better: “all the … benevolent and kindly efforts made by the comfortably placed on behalf of the miserable, failed to reduce the totality of misery, or to minimise the sum of human suffering.”
One idea aimed at reducing poverty was being propagated by the Malthusian League. Reading about and hearing their message was Mann’s first contact with an “economic theory” (albeit not a very good one). Malthus said that population will always outrun food supply. The solution was late marriage and sexual abstinence. But these things Malthus proposed only for the working classes and poor!
Finally Tom Mann got wind of a more socialistic theory, in Henry George’s book Progress and Poverty. George said “With the growth of population, land grows in value, and the men who work it must pay more for the privilege.” The wealth created by social and technological advances is captured by land owners and monopolists via inflated rents, and this concentration of unearned wealth is the root cause of poverty. Such a system was equivalent to slavery.
As natural resources are given freely by Nature no single individual should be allowed to acquire unearned revenues by monopolising land. George’s solution was not the abolition of capitalism, but the abolition of taxes save those on land value. Receipts from the land tax could go towards social provision.
It was a reformist programme but one which changed Mann’s outlook on life, giving him a “firm conviction that the social problem could and would be solved.”
In London Mann continued his eclectic and hectic studies, attending science and art classes and becoming president of the Shakespeare Mutual Improvement Society, which involved staging lectures not only on subjects Shakespearian but also “Electricity”, and “Are other Worlds Habitable?”!
This was Mann’s early political education, the foundation for his soon to be found, socialism. One other mid-Victorian writer was to have a still greater influence on Mann, as indeed he did on many others who came to join the socialist organisations of the 1880s and beyond. That was John Ruskin.
Ruskin was an art critic. William Morris describes the impact of Ruskin on the thinking of people who were dissatisfied with the age, but had next to no political voice, and few social critics to turn to for ideas.
“Before the uprising of modern Socialism [i.e. from the 1880s] almost all intelligent people either were, or professed themselves to be, quite contented with the civilisation of this century… This was the Whig frame of mind, natural to the modern prosperous middle-class men…
“But besides these contented ones there were others who were not really contented, but had a vague sentiment of repulsion to the triumph of civilisation, but were coerced into silence by the measureless power of Whiggery.
“Lastly, there were a few who were in open rebellion against the said Whiggery — a few, say two, Carlyle and Ruskin. The latter, before my days of practical Socialism, was my master towards the ideal aforesaid, and looking backward, I cannot help saying, how deadly dull the world would have been twenty years ago but for Ruskin!
“It was through him that I learnt to give form to my discontent, which I must say was not by any means vague. Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilisation.”
John Ruskin was an effective critic of Victorian civilisation and the realities of free trade and profit worship. His critical awareness skewered the philistinism of the bourgeoisie — the falseness, mechanisation and banality of architecture, art and culture.
“The great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than the furnace blast, is all in very deed for this — that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.”
Ruskin’s ideas echoed those of Thomas Carlyle, who aptly bemoaned how capitalist industrialisation was reducing all human values to cash. And both men looked to an earlier age, when, so they said, life was simpler. Ruskin considered the medieval epoch of Gothic architecture to have been the peak of self-realisation through creative labour.
Carlyle was a reactionary in his conclusions. He wanted a return to rigid social stratification. The upstart capitalists as well as the plebeians should know their place and their obligations to their (aristocratic) betters. Marx and Engels lampooned Carlyle in the Communist Manifesto:
… “feudal socialism: half lamentation, half lampoon, half echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core, but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.”
Ruskin described himself a Tory and a communist. According to his Communist Party biographer Dona Torr, Tom Mann continued to quote Ruskin in his speeches for many years.
This is from Tom Mann’s description of the period in his Memoirs:
“National politics at this period [the 1870s] was not very enlivening. No one was as yet advocating Socialism; to preach Radicalism or Republicanism was as far as any public speaker when; but Secularism was well to the front. Charles Bradlaugh, G Foote, Annie Besant and others, were exceedingly active… what was known as the Free-thought movement not only had numerous adherents but many of the best speakers in the country…
“The first time I heard Mrs Besant was in Birmingham. The only women speakers I had heard before this were of mediocre quality. Mrs Besant transfixed me; her superb control of her voice, he whole-souled devotion the cause she was advocating, her love of the down-trodden and her appeal on behalf of a sound education for children, created such an impression on me…”
• Continued next issue...