Labour History Review

'Thinking globally; acting locally': Municipal Labour and Socialist Activism in Comparative Perspective, 1890–1920

Labour History Review (2009), 74, (3), 233–256.


What does the unique political space of cities tell us about the forms working-class politics took and the barriers it confronted during the period of rapid industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? Three points of reference are crucial. First, city politics addressed immediate, tangible needs of workers and their families that were common to urban, industrial life irrespective of national boundaries. Second, the forms of political mobilization and relative success of these movements were remarkably congruent across the industrializing world but with interesting and important variations; and the US case at the municipal level, contrary to the tradition of 'American exceptionalism', was not an outlier. Third, municipal activists crafted a new local politics, that was internationalist in orientation (recall the contemporary slogan: “think globally, act locally”), and that challenged the nationalist aspirations of their parliamentary-oriented party colleagues. This divergence had profound consequences in the World War I era. With the city as the unit of analysis, we are able to transcend the framework of national political narratives that has so stamped the historiographies of the respective countries. Borders dissolve, at least conceptually, and we can examine the new political landscapes of industrializing cities for what they have in common and for their distinctiveness. We can talk about Cripple Creek, Colorado, and Broken Hill, New South Wales, in the same breath, and similarly, Cleveland, Ohio, and Brisbane, Australia; Christchurch, New Zealand, and Malmö, Sweden; Hamburg, Germany, and Liverpool, England; Vienna, Austria, and Chicago. But, what makes these comparisons that much more intriguing is that they are also linked through the cross-fertilization of political ideas. At a key point in this period, Milwaukee social democrat Walter Thomas Mills played a critical role in facilitating the organization of a New Zealand Labour Party. Two decades earlier Henry George's single tax swept through Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Sweden, shaping the thinking of working-class activists and middle-class reformers. Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited the US, Australia, and New Zealand on the eve of their own intensive examination of the history of English local government. They were preceded in Australia by the legendary British docker Ben Tillett and followed soon thereafter by Labour Party activists Tom Mann and E. R. Hartley. The traffic moved the other way as well. A young Christchurch organizer, 'Jimmy' Thorn, went off for four years to organize for the Independent Labour Party in Britain; Labour Party activists, Patrick Hickey in New Zealand and Claude Thompson in Australia, had each spent time with militant miners in the western United States; evolutionary socialist Eduard Bernstein spent a decade exiled in London before returning to Germany, imbibing the experience of independent labour activists and imparting his own evolving ideas to sympathizers in London. Using a few selected cases, drawn from research in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and the US, this paper will examine both the international networks municipal activists forged and the lessons of local political mobilization they shared.

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Author details

Stromquist, Shelton