Economics/Class Relations

The Syndicalist challenge in the Durham coalfield before 1914

By Lewis Mates

The unprecedented levels of industrial unrest in Britain in the years immediately before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 presented revolutionaries with significant opportunities. The emergence of syndicalist ideas, influenced by ideas and movements from France and the United States, also appeared to herald a possible new spirit of cooperation between anarchists and Marxists, as syndicalism grew from and fed into both traditions. While the South Wales coalfield produced what has been considered the high point of British syndicalism, the Miners’ Next Step, miner syndicalists were active elsewhere in this period, such as in the comparably important Durham coalfield. The two most significant Durham miner revolutionaries were Will Lawther and George Harvey, both of whom were well-educated propagandists, but who differed significantly in their approach to syndicalism. In one respect, the Durham coalfield seemed harsh ground for revolutionary syndicalism to flourish. The Durham miners had been regarded as moderates and their union was dominated essentially by Liberals or ‘Lib.-Labers’. Yet, a substantial rank-and-file movement emerged in this period, seeking to challenge the Durham Miners’ Association leadership’s policies, as well as the effects of much of the Liberal government’s legislation. The ways in which the two syndicalists interacted with this wider rank-and-file movement, and with each other, offers a cautionary tale to anarchists and Marxists alike, and suggests that, while the ideological divisions within syndicalism were about fundamentals (and to a great extent ran along anarchist/ Marxist lines), at times a degree of pragmatism is fruitful expedient.

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