A class act

Chris Strafford looks at the life of Tom Mann and the pre-war struggles that helped lay the basis for the founding of the CPGB

Tom Mann was born on April 15 1856 in the mining village of Foleshill, near Coventry. His father was a poorly paid clerk at a local colliery in a community that suffered more pit-related deaths and accidents than anywhere else in Britain.

Mann, though later considered one of the greatest orators and agitators of his time, spent only three years at school. By the age of nine he left to begin work as a trapper at the Victoria Colliery, a place that can only be described as hell on earth. The pit was closed after a series of accidents, cave-ins and explosions, putting Mann and his father out of work. In 1870 his family moved to Birmingham and at the age of 14 he started a seven-year apprenticeship in engineering.

Mann, desperate for explanations about his world, spent Sundays going to different church services and sometimes teaching at the local Anglican Sunday school. He also attended political meetings and heard Annie Besant speaking about socialism, as well as the Quaker, John Baker, amongst many others. He wrote: “It was of great value to me that there was a fine public library at Birmingham, easily get-at-able and available to all. I read considerably, but not systematically. I knew ... nothing whatever of Malthus or Marx. Still, I was groping my way, if not directly, towards the light.”[1]

Having finished his apprenticeship in 1877, Mann soon moved to London, where, unable to find work in his own trade, he took on different unskilled jobs. He quickly became involved in the socialist movement - Sam Mainwaring, one of the founders of the Socialist League, introduced him to the works of William Morris and encouraged Mann to educate himself in the work of writers such as John Stuart Mill and the Christian socialist, John Ruskin. He joined first the Fabian Society and then the Social Democratic Federation. Mann became convinced of the arguments of Marxism after reading The communist manifesto in 1886 - a commitment he held throughout his life. His communism was in sharp contradiction to the sterile and narrow versions of Marxism on offer from the SDF leadership - Mann put class struggle (though tinged with Christian socialism), not parliament, as the motor for socialist revolution.

In 1889 the London dock strike saw Mann rushing to get involved alongside his friend, Ben Tillett. They helped organise massive solidarity, together with other socialists, most notably Eleanor Marx. Trade unions in Australia alone raised over £30,000 and the bosses’ strategy of starving the dockers back to work was completely undermined. They were forced to agree to every demand. As Geoff Brown comments on Mann’s role in his biography, “If his career in the labour movement had ended at that point he would have been sure of some recognition as a founding father of the trade union movement.”[2]

Mann quickly became a national figure and was elected to the London Trades Council - not to mention becoming a member of the Royal Commission on Labour and in 1893 almost an Anglican minister!

The following year, however, he moved into political work in a big way. He was elected general secretary of the Independent Labour Party and selected as a candidate the following year - he was defeated for the seat of Colne Valley, the first of three contests. But Mann considered parliamentary activity as an appendage to the real work of organising the working class. He wrote in his memoirs: “I laboured to extend ILP influence in the trade unions and cooperative societies ... All the time I kept industrial organisation to the fore, attaching prime importance thereto.”[3]

From 1901 to 1910 Mann lived in Australia, where he was active in trade union struggles and helped form the Socialist Party of Australia, having left the Labor Party. The authorities put him on trial twice for sedition, but both times failed to get a conviction.

On his return to Britain Mann became an organiser for the Dockers Union and became increasingly influenced by the tactics proposed by the syndicalists and industrial unionists throughout that period. In 1910 his The way to win was published, which argued that socialism would come through the unions, direct action and the overcoming of sectionalism, not parliamentary decree. In many ways, Tom Mann reflected a growing mood amongst revolutionaries during this period, that the working class parties they had created and their representatives in parliament were not only largely useless, but actively damaging in promoting a conservative attitude to struggle and socialism amongst the working class. The syndicalists in Britain were about to have their biggest influence on working class struggles, something which has never been replicated in Britain since.

Mann formed the Industrial Syndicalist Education League, which published The Industrial Syndicalist and later the Syndicalist Railwayman. Whilst the ISEL was a small organisation, the prestige gained from its papers gave it considerable weight and support not only amongst the rank and file, but socialists across Britain, who were searching for a way out of the parliamentary quagmire and political isolation from the class.

In 1911 the Liverpool general transport strike rocked the British state, sending panic and the fear of civil war and revolution throughout the ruling class. Transport workers in Britain were organised for the first time in a single industrial union, the Transport Workers Federation (TWF), led by Mann and Tillett. The union was led by men committed to extra-parliamentary political activity and the strikes across Britain during this period were precipitated by the broken promises of the Liberal government that had pledged basic reforms such as old age pensions and a national insurance scheme.

On top of this seamen had seen their wages drop by around 10% compared to a decade earlier. Walkouts had begun in 1910, and May 1911 the TWF organised a massive demonstration in Liverpool. Thousands of workers carried banners through the centre of the city. Dock labourers and others began walking off the job and with renewed confidence workers struck against poor conditions and low wages.

As the mood became more militant, the Shipping Federation brought in the army and organised a lockout. By early August fighting had erupted on the streets and on the picket line, with live ammunition being handed out to the police and the army. The national rail strike began to spread across the country and over 100,000 workers took part in another massive demonstration in Liverpool on August 13, addressed by Mann. As the rally was finishing, the police attacked and there was street fighting in many of the small roads leading to St George’s Hall. This day came to be known as Bloody Sunday.

According to Mann, “Before the final stage of the struggle was reached in Liverpool, and when there was no serious reason to expect disorder, soldiers were drafted into the city in large numbers and were encamped in the parks. Furthermore, two gunboats were sent up the Mersey and anchored in mid-stream opposite Birkenhead, with the guns trained on Liverpool.”[4] In the end the moderates and the political leaders of the labour movement won out and talks began to end the strike wave.

For his part in the strike, and for the writing of a leaflet aimed at soldiers titled ‘Don’t shoot’, Mann was arrested, charged with sedition and sentenced to six months. A campaign by workers and socialist leaders had him out within seven weeks.

Like many revolutionaries of the period he knew that war was coming and he opposed preparations for it. In 1917 he joined the British Socialist Party, adding massive prestige to its standing. Mann supported the Russian Revolution, as “it was the direct action of the sort he wanted to see everywhere”.[5] Though unable to attend the Unity Convention of July 31-August 1 1920 - the founding congress of the CPGB - Mann sent a message of support, which was read out, along with those from leading communists across the world.

His work within the CPGB was of great importance, the party making use of his oratory skills - and the fact that he was loved by a great many workers, from Aberdeen to Adelaide. In 1921 he published a pamphlet titled Russia in 1921 supporting the policies of the Bolsheviks. In 1932, on behalf of the CPGB, Mann was in Belfast, distributing leaflets and speaking against the cuts in poor relief, and, now in his 70s, was sent to prison once again for sedition.

He died in Leeds on March 13 1941.


  1. Tom Mann’s memoirs London 1923, p19.
  2. G Brown The industrial syndicalist Nottingham 1974, p5.
  3. Ibid p95.
  4. Tom Mann's memoirs London 1923, p265.
  5. H Pollitt Tom Mann: a tribute: www.marxists.org/archive/pollitt/pamphlets/1941/mann_tribute.htm