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Working-class history: Anarcho-syndicalism on Merseyside

March 6, 2011

We are very grateful to a comrade from Manchester Solidarity Federation for lending us a book entitled ‘Building the Union: Studies on the growth of the workers’ movement: Merseyside, 1756-1967′. Below we publish several extracts from the book specifically about anarcho-syndicalism locally in the early part of the 20th century. The essay is by Bob Holton.

The development of Merseyside as a seaport led […] to the migration and settlement of many different nationalities and ethnic groups in the area, bringing with them experience of revolutionary movements elsewhere. Economic expansion not only meant the construction of dock and railway installations, but also the provision of commercial facilities to cope with expanding trade. These needs attracted manual and professional labour to the area to supplement the indigenous workforce. The Irish, Chinese and West Africans were involved in manual labour as dockers and seamen, while small settlements of Europeans with commercial skills also appeared. Merseyside was also an area of Jewish settlement, including many who were refugees from political repression in Eastern Europe.
This cosmopolitan setting inevitably encouraged the growth of syndicalism on Merseyside. Jewish exiles brought with them anarchist traditions relevant to the development of anarcho-syndicalism, a reaction away from the bomb-throwing terroristic form of anarchism. Contact with the embryonic anarcho-syndicalists in Spain was made through refugees like Lorenzo Portet, who settled in Liverpool as a teacher of foreign languages. The city’s commercial activities obviously created a demand for such skills. Portet acted as a link between emerging Liverpool syndicalists and the development of a revolutionary industrial movement in Spain in the period before 1914.

[…]

Before the widespread industrial and political unrest of 1910-14, the British syndicalist movement on Merseyside, as elsewhere, was small in scale and influence. In these early days the greatest concentration of syndicalist-inclined opinion was located within the anarchist sector of the local revolutionary left. Many British anarchists were impressed by European attempts to fuse anarchist principles with the trade union struggle, i.e. anarcho-syndicalism. The French anarchists’ success in this respect was especially noteworthy. The contribution of anarcho-syndicalism to the militancy of the CGT* was followed with interest. The interest was especially pronounced on Merseyside, where anarchist groups had existed for some years. As early as 1907 a resolute anarcho-syndicalist network was growing up in Liverpool, drawing on English, Spanish and Jewish anarchist opinion in the locality.

Mat Kavanagh and Jim Dick were two of the most prominent local anarcho-syndicalists at this time. Together with perhaps two dozen other activists they held a large number of street meetings and local discussion groups to put across their views. This work was reported in some detail within the national anarchist press, including the short-lived anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour. It was here that Dick outlined the essence of the new viewpoint: “Our principle is direct action, our idea is the social general strike to tear up the whole pernicious system root and branch” he declared on one occasion.

The “system” included Parliamentary politics, as was pointed our in a subsequent article: “The political field is no place for the true ideal of Socialism to spread its wings, it needs a wider sphere. He that caters for political position must descend to that trickery, cajolery, and intrigue, which are so dominant in the orthodox politician of today. Political action will always tend to strangle the initiative of the people.”

Merseyside’s anarcho-syndicalists also upheld the principle of an “industrial form of organisation as against the present sectional trade unionism”. Organisation on these lines, once armed with the weapons of Direct Action and the General Strike, was seen as the only effective way of gaining immediate concessions, let alone radical social change. Local activists discussed the specific relevance of this general approach to particular industries. They also took a serious interest in current episodes of industrial unrest in the area.

Anarcho-syndicalists on Merseyside as elsewhere were not concerned purely with industrial problems. Their revolutionary commitment involved other forms of activity, suited to the establishment of an alternative society based on an alternative social mortality. To this end particular attention was devoted to independent educational organisations. These were intended as an antidote to what was seen as the pervasive capitalist and clerical influence within the existing education system.

The influence of Spanish political refugees was especially important in this work. Lorenzo Portet (mentioned above), who had settled in Liverpool in 1907, was a close friend of Francisco Ferrer, the leading anarchist education reformer in Spain. Ferrer’s “Modern Schools” were intended to challenge the clerical stranglehold on education in that country, in favour of a secular and rational approach to learning. Ferrer visited Liverpool on at least two occasions between 1907-09, encouraging others to establish similar educational organisations on Merseyside. Portet and Jim Dick were particularly active in this sphere, and their efforts led to the establishment of the Liverpool Communist Sunday School. By 1909 it had over 50 members and a team of regular speakers.

[…]

The anarcho-syndicalist educational movement had meanwhile achieved wider attention, after the execution of Francisco Ferrer by the Spanish government. He was shot for alleged complicity in an attempted uprising in Barcelona in 1909. His execution caused world-wide uproar as most people assumed Ferrer innocent. It was thought his anarchist commitment involved peaceful educational reform rather than violent bomb-throwing methods. Protest meetings were held on Merseyside and elsewhere in Britain. Liverpool Trades Council, like many other labour and religious organisations, passed a resolution highly critical of the Spanish government’s action. Though the issue became one of humanitarian concern, it undoubtedly publicised the work of local anarcho-syndicalists. A crowd of 500 heard Mat Kavanagh speak on the Ferrer case, while other syndicalists like Fred Bower also addressed crowded open-air meetings on St. Georges Plateau. Support for Ferrer and his cause revealed, nevertheless, the strength of religious divisions in the locality. Catholic opinion was especially incensed at the efforts of syndicalist and other speakers to link Ferrer’s execution with alleged “Jesuitical intrigue” and “Clericalism”.

The anarcho-syndicalist movement on Merseyside before 1910 drew much of its inspiration from existing anarchist traditions involving several movements overseas. The basic elements of this kind of commitment were well formed before the widespread growth of industrial and political unrest in response to British conditions. Such dissatisfaction with domestic conditions was much more important in generating other currents of syndicalist opinion in the locality. These emerged in response to felt deficiencies in the policies and leadership of labour’s industrial and political representatives. In many cases there was a close inter-action between political and industrial dissatisfaction in the development of the syndicalist viewpoint

[…]

Over the winter of 1911-12, the anarcho-syndicalists continued their own distinctive attacks on Parliament and State Socialism. They called upon workers to support revolutionary industrial action and organisation in the creation of a new society. In Liverpool a lantern lecture on the recent strikes attracted an audience of 150, while headway was also made across the water within Tranmere Socialist Society.

Source: Building the Union: Studies on the growth of the workers’ movement: Merseyside, 1756-1967, Liverpool Trades Council, edited by Harold R. Hikins. Published by Liverpool Toulouse Press (1973).

* Confédération Générale du Travail. Originally influenced by anarcho-syndicalism, the union later became dominated by the French Communist Party.

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