Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Keir Hardie; The man and his gospel





Delegates at the 2008 Labour conference voted Keir Hardie Labour’s “greatest Hero”, but who was this figure? What advice could he provide for today’s Labour movement?

James Keir Hardie was born illegitimately to a servant from Lanarkshire, Scotland on the 15th August, 1856. Hardie grow up in extreme poverty and went to work as a baker's delivery boy for twelve hours a day when he was just eight years old, his family’s only wage-earner. When he was ten years old, after caring for his dying brother all night, he arrived late at work and was sacked and fined a week’s wages. At the age of 11 he became a miner. Hardie helped to establish a union at his colliery and in 1880 led the first ever strike of Lanarkshire miners (for which he was given the sack). He later become the secretary of the Scottish Miners' Federation and began publishing a newspaper called The Miner which he used to educate his fellow miners politically. Despite being raised as an atheist, Hardie was converted to Christianity in 1897. He later stated that his political views came not from theoretical books, or even his own experiences, but from the teaching of Jesus and the principles set forth in the Sermon on the Mount.

Like many trade unionists at the time, Hardie initially supported the Liberal Party but he became disillusioned after the government of William Gladstone. Hardie began to advocate socialism and came to the conclusion that the ‘Lib-Lab’ approach of trade unionists supporting the Liberal party was inadequate as the working-class needed its own political party. In 1888, he stood as the Independent Labour candidate for the constituency of Mid-Lanark (and came last in the poll). But Hardie persevered and was elected to represent West Ham South constituency in 1892. Hardie became the country's first socialist M.P. and created a sensation by entering Parliament wearing a cloth cap and tweed suit. In parliament Hardie became a figure despised by the British establishment. He read out the names of the hundreds of miner’s that were regularly killed due to the shortcuts that bosses took to make yet more money. Hardie argued for policies that Tom Paine had declared in Rights of Man in 1791, that the rich must be taxed in order to redistribute money to the poor.
In an effort to bring together the various trade unions, socialist and progressive groups together, a meeting in 1900 established the Labour representation committee, an organisation that later become the Labour party. In the same year Hardie was elected MP for Merthyr Tydfil. He negotiated a deal with the leaders of the Liberal Party that the two parties would not stand against each other in thirty constituencies in the next election. Thus securing the Labour party’s independence.


Hardie travelled to India, where he made speeches against the institutional racism of the British administration, he encouraged Indian self-rule in order stop the British Empire from exploiting India’s natural resources. Similar speeches in favour of Equal rights for non-white South Africans encouraged the King and the bourgeois press to attack Hardie as a seditious troublemaker. Likewise, action in favour of rights for women drew similar criticism, Yet Hardie’s close relationship with Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, along with his ecological views, signify how, in many ways, Hardie was ahead of his time.

In a country like Britain, with its history of moderation and respect for constitutional, democracy, the ballot is certainly more effective in bringing about social reform than the barricade. Hardie argued that “Socialism does not create the class struggle, it does not even accentuate it, it only recognises it. This is then broad generalisation of Marx which pedants have distorted out of all recognition, and elevated into a sectarian dogma under the name of the ‘Class War’." Hardie argued that socialism was not superseded by social reform under bourgeois government; he rejected the sectarian posturing of the Social Democratic Federation, who chose to oppose anything that was not the immediate full implementation of socialism overnight. In this vein, Hardie supported the social reforms of Lloyd George’s ‘People’s budget’, yet this backing was never uncritical. Hardie opposed the 1911 National insurance bill as it intended to exact contributions by means of the hated poll tax, that had led peasants to revolt against the King in 1381. Keir Hardie argued that the new party should be named the Labour party, without any reference to ‘socialist’ in order to avoid the party becoming one of many small dogmatic sects. This constructive approach allowed the Labour party not only to bring issues such as old age pensions, health and unemployment relief to a parliament that was dominated by the day to day issues of running the King’s empire, but to reverse the anti-union judgements such as that made during the Taff Vale case. Hardie’s philosophy held that the pursuit of complete socialism does not rule out the pursuit of partial socialism. In fact, it is only through campaigns of social reform that an alliance of socialists, trades unionists and middle-class sympathisers can be built into a movement that can viably buld the foundations of a socialist society.

In the years running up to the First World War, Keir Hardie threw himself into the anti-war campaign, Shaking off bourgeois attacks that labelled him ‘pro-German’ he travelled across Europe urging socialist leaders to call a general strike in the event of war. Following a gruelling schedule of meetings, speeches and protests, the outbreak of war represented a sharp deterioration in Hardie’s ill health. However, Hardie’s faith in humanity never faltered and on the 24 December 1914, British and German soldiers spontaneously climbed out of their trenches to play football and sing ‘Silent Night’ with one another.
Hardie spend much of his relatively short life isolated, lonely and often ridiculed. Yet it was his strong maverick character that enabled him to bring together so many different groups and forge a new political party. Hardie managed to steer the Labour movement away from the influence of both the dogma of anarcho-syndicalism and inward facing Marxist sects. And at the same time, Hardie built a truly independent Labour party, that no longer had to compromise it’s principles in a subservient relationship with the Liberal party.

Hardie’s appeal came from his distinctive mixture of religious derived principles, pragmatic, non-sectarian approach and firm grounding in the traditions of our indigenous radical past. From the peasant’s revolt to the levellers, Tom Paine and the chartists, Hardie believed that every movement of the people in our country for the last thousand years has ultimately sought to create the mythical, socialist commonwealth of ‘Merrie England’. In Serfdom to Socialism (1907), Hardie wrote “This generation has grown up ignorant of the fact that socialism is as old as the human race. When civilization dawned upon the world, primitive man was living his rude Communistic life, sharing all things in common with every member of the tribe. Later when the race lived in villages, man, the communist, moved about among the communal flocks and herds on communal land. The peoples who have carved their names most deeply on the tables of human story all set out on their conquering career as Communists, and their downward path begins with the day when they finally turned away from it and began to gather personal possessions. When the old civilizations were putrefying, the still small voice of Jesus the Communist stole over the earth like a soft refreshing breeze carrying healing wherever it went.”

In today’s culture of greed, where the relentless pursuit of personal wealth is not only encouraged but celebrated, even a Labour government announces that there is nothing morally wrong with being ‘filthy rich’. Hardie, drawing heavily on his religious discourse, considered his day to be an age of the worship of Mammon; to stand up against this, Hardie stated that “Socialism proposes to dethrone the brute god Mammon and to lift humanity into its place”. Hardie celebrated the radicals of his day, who had widely democratized Britain’s political system, and he urged the Labour movement to extend this emancipatory move by democratizing the economy. James Keir Hardie is widely seen as legendary figure, the father of Britain’s Labour movement. The significance of this is illustrated on the banner of the Chopwell Lodge of the National Union of Miners, which displays the portrait of Keir Hardie next to that of Marx and Lenin. The hammer and sickle of the Communist party alongside the ‘spade, torch and hoe’ of the Labour party, representing the unity of socialist, trade unionist and progressive components of force that Keir Hardie assembled all those years ago. At a time when the New Labour clique have infringed upon Labour’s founding principles of peace, equality and morality, the example of Keir Hardie informs today’s radicals how to construct an alliance that will push history in a progressive direction.

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