The struggle for Silvertown

July 16, 2014

Trish Kahle reviews a book that uncovers the nearly lost history of a struggle that marked a turning point for the British working class movement.

THE AUTHOR and critic Walter Benjamin once wrote in an essay titled "On the Concept of History": "There has never been a document of culture which is not simultaneously one of barbarism." John Tully's new book Silvertown is a well-researched examination of that very duality--with London, the 19th century heart of bourgeois imperial culture, at its center.

Although rightly categorized as a labor history, Tully's study of the defeated strike in 1889 at Samuel Winkworth Silver's rubber and electrical factory in London's East End also probes the place this strike held in a rapidly changing world of production and politics in Britain.

Looking behind the image of the golden age of the British Empire, Tully shows us how the wonders of the industrial era were built on the backs--and corpses--of the English working class and those subjected to the tyrannical rule of the British Empire.

The 1889 Silvertown strikers took their inspiration from a recently successful dockworkers strike, which imbued them with a new sense of courage to demand higher wages. The poverty wages paid by Silver's consigned workers to fetid living conditions that Tully brings to life in his book.

Eleanor Marx
Karl Marx's daughter Eleanor Marx emerged as a central figure in the Silvertown struggle

These conditions constituted the "chill darkness at the heart of [London's] wonder and bounty: the somber contradiction between Victorian London's splendid material wealth and high culture on the one hand, and a barbarous system of industrial and social organization on the other," Tully writes.

Systemic violence, unending destitution, and cesspools of infectious diseases and parasites were a part of everyday life for the workers of Silvertown, where infant mortality was much higher than elsewhere in the East End--it was, in fact, on par with Iraq's infant death rate during the height of the U.S. bombing and occupation from 2003 to 2005.

Tully describes the East End working class this way: "[T]he great bulk of the nation's workers endured abject poverty in the midst of...the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen."

As Tully notes from the outset, the strike was unsuccessful. Several factors--lack of solidarity from the engineers' union and some French workers; cold and hunger setting in as the winter progressed; a lack of pre-existing workers' organization--contributed to the defeat.

"Armchair generals will be quick to insist that Silver's workers went on strike prematurely," Tully writes, "without adequate preparation," but "Silver's was a sweatshop, and the tyrannical and arbitrary methods of management meant that the factory was waiting for a spark to ignite an industrial conflagration. The victory of the dock strikers provided that spark."

DESPITE ITS fate, the struggle remains important as a historical marker, for its place in laying the groundwork for the growth of the "New Unionism" in the decades to come--as well as the emergence of explicitly working-class politics and, ultimately, the Labour Party as an independent working class force in parliamentary politics.

As well, the failed Silvertown strike is important to socialists and working class militants today for another reason: It shows centrality of socialist politics to the emergence of a vanguard of working class leadership necessary for confronting divisions within the working class and building (or rebuilding) workers' organizations in the face of intransigent employers and powerful empires.

In particular, the political economy of the British Empire stands at the center of the Silvertown story.

Beginning in 1864, Silver's began to manufacture insulated electrical and telegraph cable. It also purchased ships to help lay the transoceanic cables that would connect London to the far reaches of its empire--a central concern after the 1857 mutiny in India which had challenged British imperial rule.

By the end of the century, Silver's had laid more than 40,000 miles of oceanic cable--more than one-quarter of all existing submarine cable. The project was massively subsidized by the British government, recalling author Daniel Headrick's claim that "[t]he web of power that tied the colonial empires together was made of electricity as well as steam and iron."

The conduit of imperial power was buttressed by the personal financial investments in Silver's by many leading politicians and colonial figures. Conservative Party Prime Minister Lord Salisbury owned 27 shares in the company, which in today's currency would be worth more than $250,000. The firm also received investment from colonial interests.

Cementing the link between Silver's and the British imperial project was the portrayal, during the strike, of scabbing as a "patriotic duty." Without the communications materials--not to mention armaments, waterproofing and other goods--that Silver's manufactured, expansion of the British Empire in the Victorian era would have been unfeasible.

Silver's workforce, referred to as a majority immigrant community, also reflected the simultaneous expansion of capitalism and imperialism. High proportions of workers had been displaced from their homes in Ireland and the Scottish highlands. Others came from families pushed off the land in England by the Enclosure Acts in the previous century.

THE ORGANIZING of the strike itself and the experiences of workers and socialist militants also stand out historically. The strike ultimately crossed job and skill categories, involving skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers alike. With the struggle polarized London far beyond the squalor of Silvertown, workers were able--because of general bitterness toward the company--to overcome the divisions created among them, at least for a time.

Not only were workers divided between skilled and unskilled, they were also divided by gender. Silver's employed men and women, with men earning more than double what the women did. (Although a huge difference, men's wages paled in comparison to the earnings of the company directors, whose took in more in a year than workers could make in a lifetime.)

Despite this difference, women took a leading role in the strike, prompting one commentator to note that "had all the strikers and those who came out with them been imbued with the spirit of the women, the battle would probably have been won." One lasting outcome of the strike was the establishment of women's committees by the New Unions that gained power in the years following the defeat at Silvertown.

Of the many women who played central roles in the struggle at Silvertown--including a local barwoman who allowed her pub to be turned into a permanent strike headquarters--Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, emerged as a central figure.

Throughout the strike, Marx made consistent and principled arguments for the inclusion of women's demands, equal treatment for women at work, and unity and solidarity as the keys to victory.

Prior to the strike, she had cultivated working political relationships with labor militants in the East End. This network allowed Marx and her comrades to not only show solidarity by attending rallies and raising money for the strike fund, but play a central role in the political leadership of the struggle, among a workforce that was, on the whole, entirely new to trade unionism. Marx's principled leadership helped transform at least one of the strike leaders into a socialist militant himself.

OF COURSE, the defeat of the strike did not crush the people of Silvertown. These workers played a central role in the growth of an independent labor party, which emerged as a response to the employer's offensive following the defeat at Silvertown.

A series of court rulings determined that unions could be held liable for economic damages "sustained by the loss of trade during strikes." This backed unions into a corner--and solidified the idea that labor needed an independent political voice. By 1898, a coalition of socialists, Radicals and Irish Republicans had gained control over the West Ham Borough Council, the borough where Silvertown was located--a first for British politics.

Amid all the clear differences between our own time and Victorian London, continuities and similarities emerge.

History is a complicated, often messy project of understanding the past, and there is no easy way to draw from it like a playbook. Still, the task of socialist history is to understand the mechanisms and politics of change--and from this, to generalize lessons about how capitalism works, and how struggles are fought, won and lost.

Besides the commendable academic endeavor of understanding a nearly lost history on its own terms, Tully's Silvertown is part of such a project. It is hard to imagine any union activist or socialist reading Tully's book and not drawing from it new ways to understand how our own fights fit into a history of class struggle--and learning lessons for today from the strikers at Silvertown and their socialist allies.

Tully closes with a lesson that is worth repeating:

The Silver's Strike Committee could not but recognize defeat, yet they insisted that their struggle was an "earnest" for the future. It is a lesson that perhaps needs to be relearned in today's neoliberal age, with its recycled dogmas from [the days of the Industrial Revolution]. Above all, the Silvertown experience points to the need for working-class unity, something as pressing now as it was back then.

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