Hardie, James Keir (1856-1915) by Belk, Patrick Scott

James Keir Hardie (1856-1915) Early Life Born illegitimate among itinerant coal miners in rural Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1856, rose from abject poverty to become one of the first, and most celebrated, Labor Party MPs in the history of British Parliament. James Keir Hardie The extreme poverty of Hardie’s childhood and formative adolescence was the definitive influence on his life and later political career. He was first sent to work at the age of seven, as an assistant to a local baker, and by the time he was ten he was working twelve-hour days, literally of a Lanarkshire coal mine. In the following years, from the age of ten to seventeen, Hardie was often the sole supporter of a large and ever-growing family that included his mother, an alcoholic stepfather (who often referred to Hardie as ), and eventually six younger brothers and sisters, one of whom was to die, after a prolonged illness, in Hardie’s arms. The family moved constantly in search of work, which was never very plentiful, and they were at times so poor they had to sell their furniture in order to eat. By the time he was seventeen, Hardie was largely on his own, but the characteristic hardships of the exploited classes into which he was born, including hunger, hard labor, and the instability of a life marked by constant and evictions, would remain with him for the rest of his life. at the bottom the bastard sacks Union Leader By 1876, Hardie had risen through the rank-and-file of Lanarkshire miners, establishing a reputation among his fellow workers as an able, though somewhat reluctant, labor leader (read ), and, in spite of never having received a formal education, he had even taught himself to read and write. During this crucial period of his social and political development, Hardie began attending regular meetings of the Scottish Miners’ Association, organized by the socialist , in nearby Powburn Toll, even though attendance was strictly forbidden by management. It was through these meetings that Hardie began to develop his sense of class-consciousness. agitator Alexander McDonald Hardie’s official foray into local politics came in 1880, when he helped establish a worker’s union for the Lanarkshire miners, who soon went on strike to protest the abysmal living conditions imposed on their families by the corporations controlling the area’s mining operations. The strike failed to achieve its stated aim of a 10% wage increase, and Hardie was immediately dismissed for the organizing role he had played. Subsequently blacklisted and barred from working again in the coal mines of Lanarkshire, Hardie moved to nearby Cumnock in 1881, where he began writing for a local newspaper while continuing his work of organizing the miners’ unions in the area. In 1886, Hardie was elected secretary for the newly formed Ayreshire Miners’ Union, and largely because of his fellow miners’ confidence in him, he advanced quickly through the ranks to become secretary of the Scottish Miners’ Association within the year. In 1887, Hardie began publishing his own newspaper, , in which he attempted to educate the Scottish working classes, particularly his fellow miners, from a decidedly socialist perspective. The Miner It is important to note that Hardie’s early political career as a union leader spanned a time when British labor laws hardly existed. Conditions in the Scottish coal mines were miserable and dangerous, while relations between workers and management were often violent and sometimes deadly. Hardie’s local struggles for the rights of coal miners in Lanarkshire emphasized the need for a larger, united front working in opposition to the political and economic status quo—an empowered political party representing the needs of the working classes, on a national level, against the interests of their politically-entrenched capitalist employers. The education Hardie gained from these early struggles against the large iron corporations convinced the young labor leader of the importance of working class unity. With this slowly but steadily growing awareness, Hardie would expand his political consciousness beyond the concerns of the local Lanarkshire miners to include all British working classes and eventually all workers everywhere, regardless of occupation or nationality. National Politics In 1888, Hardie first ran for a seat in Parliament, as a socialist representative for the solidly working-class constituency of Mid-Lanark, and though he was defeated in the General Election (finishing last in the polls), he continued to advocate for better working conditions for the British working classes under the auspices of The Independent Socialist Party, which he had helped to form. In 1889, Hardie attended the Second Workers International in Paris. Two years later, he took part in the Miners’ International in Belgium. He also visited the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland during this time. In the 1892 General Election, Hardie ran again for a seat in Parliament, this time as the Independent Socialist Party candidate for London’s industrial East End. He won the election and became the country’s second socialist MP. While tradition dictated that MPs wear top hats and long black coats upon entering the House of Commons, Hardie created a relative sensation by entering Parliament wearing only a blue cloth cap, his old tweed suit, and a pair of muddy workman boots. Antagonistic, simple, and well-meaning, Hardie’s reflects a fervent belief in the ultimately heroic nature of his political cause. Distrustful of his upper-class colleagues in the Houses of Parliament, and heedful of remaining true to the concerns and welfare of his own class, he accepted and nurtured his antagonistic role as an outsider and true member of the proletariat. Xparliamentary persona As a member of the British legislature, Hardie advocated a wide range of measures and reforms intended to improve the lives of British workers at home and abroad. He supported higher income taxes for the wealthy classes in England, while arguing that the extra revenue be used to provide old age pensions and to fund schools for the children of the working class. He was an outspoken supporter of the women’s suffrage movement, and he worked to end colonial rule in India and segregation in South Africa as well. In 1893, Hardie was elected chairman and leader of the Independent Labor Party. In 1894, when members refused his suggestion that a message of condolence to the relatives of 251 coal miners, killed by an explosion in Wales, be included in an official address commemorating the birth of the future , Hardie made a speech in the House of Commons excoriating the privileges of the monarchy and calling for the abolishment of the House of Lords. For these very unpopular positions, Hardie was savagely attacked in the British newspapers and became a pariah among other members of Parliament. Edward VIII Hardie was defeated in the 1895 General Election, and over the next five years he devoted most of his time and energy to improving the organization of the Independent Labor Party, using his newspaper (now renamed the ) to develop party policy and further advocate socialism through the organization of community groups, free schools, and Sunday school classes. On July 12, 1896, Hardie was arrested before a crowd of 50,000 people in Manchester, England. The labor leader was soon released, however, when the Home Secretary, worried about the publicity Hardie was receiving, intervened on his behalf. Labor Leader Hardie had for a long time believed that the various trade unions and socialist groups in Britain should form one large political party. Negotiations began in 1899, and in 1900 a meeting in London led to the formation of the Labor Representation Committee, an organization that eventually developed into Britain’s present-day Labor Party. In 1900, the constituents of Merthyr Tydfil, an industrial town in South Wales, returned Hardie to Parliament. As one of only two socialist members of the House of Commons at the time, his influence was severely limited. Through negotiations with the far more influential Liberal Party, however, and with the cooperation of the 29 Labor Party members elected in the 1906 General Election, Hardie was among those who helped form the new government. The two parties, while often at odds with one another, nonetheless cooperated against the interests of the now minority pro-business Conservative Party. Hardie was elected leader of the Labor Party in the House of Commons, but he soon resigned the post, due to his unwillingness to compromise with both his own party’s members and the members of the Liberal Party. In the General Election of 1910, 40 Labor Party MPs were elected to Parliament, and Hardie once again agreed to become leader. His views were not always popular, however, even among members of his own party. Many disagreed with Hardie’s support of women’s suffrage, while Hardie was violently opposed to his party’s close ties to opposition groups, considering it treasonous for members of the Labor Party to associate with the enemies of the working classes. Consequently, he again resigned the post, less than a year after his election. During his tenure in Parliament, Hardie eschewed theoretical debates with his socialist peers, preferring incremental but substantive steps toward improving the living conditions of the British working classes. Yet his writings on Marxist doctrine () reveal a subtle, sophisticated understanding of Marx’s concept of dialectical materialism and the centrality of class struggle to the development of human society. Karl Marx: The Man and His Message Later Career Denounced as a traitor for his pacifist opposition to the First World War, Hardie slowly withdrew from national party politics and focused his energies instead on organizing a national strike against British participation in the war. While seriously ill, he took part in several anti-war demonstrations in the last years of his life. The national strike against the war, however, never materialized. James Keir Hardie died on September 25, 1915. After Hardie’s death, labor movement biographers, in order to present Labor in more and palatable terms to the general public, attempted to play down his socialist credentials, stressing his religious and temperance background to the exclusion of his decidedly Marxist loyalties. respectable —Patrick Scott Belk Selected Works by James Keir Hardie London: Women’s Freedom League, 1905. The Citizenship of Women: A Plea for Woman’s Suffrage. London: G. Allen, 1907. From Serfdom to Socialism. London: Independent Labour Party, 1909. India: Impressions and Suggestions. Manchester: National Labour Press, 1910. Karl Marx: The Man and His Message. Selected Works about James Keir Hardie . London: Croom Helm, 1978. Reid, Fred Keir Hardie: The Making of a Socialist. . . London: ILP Publication Department, 1921. Stewart, William J. Keir Hardie

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