A Quick History of Welsh Socialism

The timeline of Socialism and the working classes in Wales makes for a rich reading, one that is often hard to condense into a shorter paragraph. 

In 1907, Keir Hardie – who was a Merthyr Member of Parliament spoke openly on the natural born connection between Wales and socialism. A hundred years ago many Welsh people could heavily grasp the rage and might that had led to revolution in Russia. They had suffered extremely poor conditions, wrongs and injustices within industry – the oppression from the masters, the bourgeoisie. As the industrial revolution swept across Wales, it quickly became a series of hotbeds of working class communities – in the south especially where works and coal mines rose and the north-east and west with the development of the slate industry. 

Jack Jones, a miner in 1921 went to the founding conference of the British Communist Party as delegate from his home of Pontypool. This led to the forming of the Communist Party of Great Britain. He writes in his autobiography that he was returning to Wales to “play my part in the class war.” This however was short lived, he left to join Oswalds Labour party, and eventually the conservative party. This had left a divide, miners disillusioned – others empowered.

Lewis Jones, another miner – maintained his faith in the Russian revolution – quoted as saying “Red was the colour of the blood they lost. Red is the colour of the revolution they will make” in his short story The Power of the Pit and the whole purpose of his novels Cwmardy and We Live was to further the possibility of bringing Communist revolution to Wales.

Whilst electorally less prevalent, the Welsh Committee of the Communist Party of GB was a consistent feature of Welsh politics in the 20th century, primarily in the influence of workers rights in trade unions. 

In 1929, Aneurin Bevan became a Member of Parliament, known for bridging the more revolutionary Marxist tradition with the tradition of Socialist Democracy. He is noted as occasionally critical of the Soviet Union’s totalitarian tendencies and also critical of Welsh nationalism himself. Despite this, his influence is greatly seen in what eventually led to the establishment of the Welsh Office in 1964, and a long journey towards devolution.

Raymond Williams, who came from the small village Pandy, and a more traditional scholar of the New Left movement – saw emphasis on the importance of renouncing the oppressive structures of the capitalist state. He touted the importance of identity, women’s equality, the recognition of the activity of minorities and people of color. He was one of the first of these figures to speak up on the British State being a strong opponent of progressive socialism in Wales. Figures such as Robert Griffiths and Gareth Miles followed this lead, who would go on to establish the Welsh Socialist Republican Movement during the 1980s, were also responsible for popularizing Marxist ideas amongst Welsh communities. 

Outside of the direct political spheres – rioting, community organizing and protest has been consistent among the Welsh people and their desire for workers rights. Some notable of the aforementioned, but certainly not limited to include the 1831 Merthyr Rising, which found a violent uprising amongst the large working class population in Merthyr Tydfil. This originated from miners calling for reform of their lowering wages and stagnated employment rates. It is historically believed this is the rebellion that first saw the red flag of revolution raised in revolt symbolically for workers rights. This is when the Reform Act was passed, though this conflict and unrest began in 1816.

In 1839, The Newport Chartist Rising took place right up until the1850s, the movement focused on a charter which aimed to introduce votes for all men aged over 21, equal electoral districts, payment of MPs to allow working class men to stand, anonymous ballots and annual elections (which before then stood every 7 years and created a large divide between politician and working class people.) The ‘Rising’ at Newport in November 1839 was the most serious manifestation of physical force Chartism in the history of the movement. It was truly a story of rebellion, Chartism and democracy for the workers and led to the Rebecca riots beginning, fighting general economic conditions and taxations of farmers and agriculturalists in the countryside of Wales, and lasting until 1943.

The 1900-03 Great Strike, the result of years of unrest in the quarrying industry in the Ogwen Valley – focussed on Union rights, pay and working conditions,a bitter battle between Lord Penrhyn and the quarry workers ripped apart a community and changed this part of North Wales forever. The community was divided in two: strikers and ‘cynffonwyr’ (the ones who had accepted the ‘Tail pound’). It was decided that posters of the words: Nid Oes Bradwr yn y Ty Hwn (There is no traitor in this house) be printed and shown in a window of every striker’s home.

In October 1910, there was a dispute at Cambrian Combine as some men refused to accept the new lower pay offer which sparked the event of thousands of miners on strike. Violence broke out as the strikers stopped other miners going to work, and bitterness led to riots in Tonypandy. The inevitable clash between picketers and strike-breakers materialized at Llwynypia. Miners and police fought hand-to-hand, as the strikers pelted the pit’s powerhouse with rocks. 

This repeated upon the announcement of closures in the industry. Britain’s government sent much military and police force to these parts of Wales with escalated violence between 1984–85, the communities continue to hold those scars and often reform them into solidarity with workers worldwide.

The fight against fascism in Spain, between 1936 and 1939, drew young men and women from Wales to join. It is said that this also involved recognising the national rights of Catalonia and the Basque Country which were a factor in the Civil War and its link with Welsh nationalism and workers. The response in Wales was largely provided by the South Wales Miners’ Federation and the Communist Party and eventually supported by a broad coalition including the Labour Party, Liberals, some Welsh writers, academics and teachers. Some became famous in later life as trade union leaders, notably Will Paynter and Twm Sbaen throughout the labour movement.

In 1974, the TUC Cymru was formed – it continues to spearhead campaigns for workers rights throughout Wales. Wales has never halted its fight for greater workplace equality, and its Communist roots are visible to those who want to see them.

  • R. Cooze.

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