Why the Great Unrest?

The Great Unrest was a period of unprecedented industrial militancy in Britain between 1910 ad 1914. It has been largely hidden from history, overshadowed by the dramatic collapse of the socialist movement on the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, and later on by the Russian Revolution and subsequent founding of a Communist Party in Britain.

In 1910-12 miners, railwaymen and dockers all conducted prolonged strike action. Initially much of this was unofficial sympathy strike. Ideas of class solidarity and taking action in support of other workers became the driving force behind the spread of the Unrest. The longest and most bitter dispute was the Dublin Lock-out in 1913, which many contemporaries viewed as almost a civil war. During the time that Connolly and Larkin’s Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union was locked out, many railwaymen in the north of England refused to move Dublin goods.

Workers at the time faced a Liberal government desperate to do everything to avoid social revolution. Some workers were killed in police baton charges, troops were mobilised and gunboats even dispatched to the Mersey to intimidate strikers. Eight people, including Tom Mann, were arrested and tried for distributing a leaflet which used the language of class to urge soldiers not to shoot down striking workers.

The period also saw important developments in the struggle for Votes for Women. Sylvia, the youngest Pankhurt sister, broke with her mother and eldest sister when she began to organise working class women in London’s East End. Her group would become the Workers’ Socialist Federation, and enthusiastically welcomed the Bolshevik revolution. It was also during this period that George Lansbury resigned from Parliament in order to fight a by-election on the issue of women’s suffrage. He was unsuccessful but helped popularise the issue inside the male-dominated labour movement.

The socialist moved also had its first national daily paper, the Herald, which began as a printer’s strike newsletter in 1911. In its early years the Herald opened its columns to all shades of socialist opinion. It was kept going by donation from its readers, and local Herald Leagues which also spread syndicalist propaganda in the unions.

Much more could and should be written about the period. This page just gives a taste of it. This blog draws on the militant traditions of the Great Unrest; socialist, anarchist, industrial unionist, and feminist. The name seems appropriate as the need to rediscover and elaborate on these traditions continues to grow.

The Great Unrest is a collaborative blog which brings together writers from different left-wing trends and tendencies. We aim to take an open-minded and non-sectarian approach to talking about current politics and culture. We will also explore various episodes of labour and socialist history.

If you think there’s anything we should be writing about, or want to pitch an idea for an article, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

5 responses to “Why the Great Unrest?

  1. Katrina

    Bravo for the blog, looks and reads really well.
    I’m from Belfast, living & working (when not on strike !) in France. As a French union member I’ve been desperately trying to figure out what and where the voice of the Irish workers are?
    If you have addresses, contacts or/and tips could you pls could fire them over by email, I’d much appreciate it.


  2. socialistedd

    Hi Katrina,

    What’s your email? I’ll try to dig out some links.


  3. DrDre

    This is the first time I’ve looked at your “Why the great unrest”. I’ve just come from the Cambridge Occupation’s General Assembly where I was talking with someone about what I called the ‘Edwardian counter-culture’, out of which came what you call the Great Unrest. I came to it when doing some work on Fenner Brockway and looking at the networks he was part of in the 1908-20 period — socialists, left liberals, anarchists, feminists, pacifists, vegetarians, free lovers, Sinn Feiners, ILP networds, and Indian nationalists. I realised that much of what was achieved in the 1940s drew on how the political imaginations of men like Beveridge, Attlee etc had been formed in the Edwardian period, and shaped by utopian social thinking and by discovering through the new social science how working people really lived.

  4. It’s a fascinating period and one that I’m researching at the moment. George Dangerfield’s idea was that a three-pronged assault on liberal democracy – from the workers, the women, and the Tories, caused it to lose legitimacy. There’s something in that, but he mainly only talked about politics. Are there any good reads about the cultural or counter-cultural side?

  5. Pingback: History is bollocks: moral politics and other fairy tales

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