The Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival is held every July to remember six Dorset farm labourers who in 1834 were sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for the crime of organising a combination of workers to protect and attempt to improve their wages and conditions. These were years of considerable trade union activity where the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed. Its aim was to coordinate movements for advances in wages and assistance for strikes especially those against a reduction in wages. The same year saw also much unrest amongst agricultural labourers including forms of direct action such as machine-breaking and rick-burning.
As usual the master class were unconcerned with the causes of the misery and discontent but rather to make an example of the activists in the hope that this would destroy any idea of union organisation amongst farm labourers. The trial was a travesty. The justices were local landowners and employers with outspoken prejudices against the accused; the jurymen were fearful for their livelihood; the judge put words into the mouths of witnesses. Thus six farm labourers from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle were arrested and charged with the administering of unlawful oaths for seditious purposes which was unlawful under an Act of 1797. Their real crime was that they had the audacity and courage to try to form a trade union.
Socialist Party members have attended this event on Saturday July 20th and Sunday July 21st, organising a stall to offer a wide variety of socialist literature, and generally explaining the case for world socialism to interested visitors. What then can we achieve by attending the Tolpuddle event? Whenever workers gather, and particularly at events where ideas are being discussed and exchanged, socialists have to be involved in putting forward the basic fact that capitalism cannot be reformed to work in our interests and that alternatives are no alternative at all. Unclear and unsound ideas cannot be defeated by ignoring them.
The events that the Tolpuddle Festival commemorates took place almost 180 years ago but despite that, many similar problems still remain today. The trade union movement is under great pressure. The struggle for trade union rights is a vital one so long as society is divided into two classes: those who produce but do not possess and those who possess but do not produce.
However, trade union organisation needs to be more about working class self-organisation and democratic control from bottom to top and less about letting leaders make decisions on our behalf. Secondly, trade unions have attached and affiliated themselves to the Labour Party which support capitalism and have risked having their effectiveness being reduced when that particular party is in government. Thirdly, trade union organization although necessary for working class industrial self-defence, it is not an end in itself. Our fellow-workers also need to organise consciously and politically to abolish the system which is the root cause of the need to engage in this endless day-to-day struggle. Workers have been distracted from engaging in all-out struggle against the root cause of their problems by becoming involved in fruitless diversions and worthless causes. What will be achieved at Tolpuddle this year is that the case for socialism is being put forward and that we see a socialist party for the working class active and engaged in putting forward the choice to our fellow-workers.
The socialist message is loud and clear. Don’t waste any more time or effort attempting to reform capitalism or in the delusion that in some part of the world state ownership has proved itself to be a more effective or humane system than the private variety of capitalism. Instead campaign for a social system based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of producing and distributing the things we need to live, production directly for use. and free access to all goods and services on the basis of self-determined need: in short, a world-wide system run by human beings for human beings.
To really pay tribute to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and many others like them, we need to rediscover the spirit of early trade unionism with the emphasis on self-organisation rather than waiting for leaders to act on our behalf. The story of the Tolpuddle martyrs is about how ordinary working people joined together to protect the well-being of their families. Class solidarity is a Socialist Party demand.
Perhaps present trade unionists should heed the advice of their predecessors.
“Although the design of the Union is, in the first instance, to raise wages of the workmen, or prevent any further reduction therein, and to diminish the hours of labour, the paramount rights of Industry and Humanity by...bringing about A DIFFERENT ORDER OF THINGS, in which the really useful and intelligent parts of society only shall have the direction of its affairs.” - Rule XLVI of the G.N.C.T.U