When British workers stood against slavery

Submitted by Anon on 21 October, 2005 - 5:50

The export of cotton from the US South was a major factor in the growth of British industry during the 19th century. The blockade of Southern ports by the Union navy resulted in a major crisis. By July 1862, Britain’s supply of raw cotton stood at one third of the normal level. Three quarters of British cotton-mill workers were unemployed or on short time.

For this reason, and because of their general hostility to democratic ideas, the British ruling class leaned heavily towards the Confederacy. Leading members of Palmerston’s Whig government, including Chancellor of the Exchequer and future Prime Minister William Gladstone, openly favoured British intervention to lift the Northern blockade and help establish Confederate independence.

Despite the fact that its members’ immediate economic interests were under threat, the British workers’ movement - including in the Lancashire textile towns - overwhelmingly opposed intervention and stood solid “for Lincoln and liberty”.

This was something of a puzzle to supporters of the slavocracy. Henry Hotze, a Swiss-born Alabamian who arrived in London in 1862 to work as a Southern propagandist, wrote: “The Lancashire operatives were the only class which as a class continues actively inimical to us. With them the unreasoning aversion to our institutions is as firmly rooted as in any part of New England.” But, as a former Chartist leader put it in February 1863: “The people had said there was something higher than work, more precious than cotton... it was right, and liberty, and doing justice, and bidding defiance to all wrong.”

Marx wrote to Engels in April 1863, describing this magnificent display of solidarity as “an act almost without precedent” in the history of the working class. Marx documented how, during the Civil War, a series of mass workers’ meetings in English towns from Newcastle to London, including pro-Confederate Liverpool, passed resolutions denouncing slavery and promising resistance to the threat of British military support for the Confederacy. (The population of the US responded by sending shiploads of aid to the unemployed workers of Lancashire.)

One such meeting was organised by the London Trades Union Council in March 1863; Marx considered it critical to process which led to the founding of the International Workingmen’s Association the following year. As the founding rules of the International put it:

“It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England, that saved the west of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.”

The job of socialists today is to revive this spirit of international working-class solidarity!

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