Write off Socialism at Your Peril; Many of the Issues Which First Spawned the Fight for Social Justice Remain

Article excerpt


Once, the Valleys of South Wales rang with its slogans. Socialism's red flags, confidently fluttering in the wind of change, brought hundreds of thousands of workers out of their coal mines and ironworks and spilling on to the streets to fight, often with their fists, for justice and a better way of life.

The dynamics of the Industrial Revolution had given South Wales a confident, expansive society, but one dominated by the extremes of great wealth and miserable poverty.

The magnificent houses, manicured parks and architectural follies of the ironmasters and coal owners towered over the mean terraces of their workers' houses which lacked the most basic amenities and which degenerated into slums soon after they were built.

Wages were at a level which kept even the mosts enterprising and hardworking families close to the poverty line. In an attempt to keep the great god profit wellfed, wages were savagely cut at times of economic depression.

Unemployment benefit, if it existed at all, was minimal. The catastrophe of sickness could plunge a family irrevocably into abject poverty and starvation.

Anything but the most elementary education was the prerogative of the rich. All but a tiny few of the working class faced a life of backbreaking labour down the mines clustering the valley floors or in the suffocating heat of the nearest ironworks.

The conditions brought the organisation of labour into trade unions and a flood of strikes and industrial protests.

Sometimes these became prolonged and terrible trials of strength lasting months or even years, such as the miners' lockout of 1926, which continued for nine months, or the three-year lock-out which devastated the North Wales slate industry at the beginning of the 20th Century.

Occasionally, workers' protest spilled into open revolt such as the riots which tore Merthyr Tydfil apart in 1831 and Tonypandy in 1910.

Sometimes the industrial workers and small farmers organised secret armies to fight their cause, such as Monmouthshire's Scotch Cattle or the Rebecca Riots of Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire.

The creed that justified the workers' protests and gave them a philosophy to live by was socialism, a word which, as Robert Pope points out in his interesting study, Building Jerusalem, had almost as many definitions as it had proponents.

But all of those definitions shared a belief in social justice and in the need for the working class to fight collectively to transform society and the economic life of its members.

Nor were socialism's aims limited to the economic well-being of the workers. Better wages, better health treatment and better education were merely the means to give ordinary men and women fulfilled lives, both imaginatively and emotionally, and to usher in the New Jerusalem.

In Wales socialism found a natural ally in the religion of the chapels. Like socialism, Nonconformity was iconoclastic, bent on destroying the authority of the established church. …