Imprecise term referring to two ideas: first, that workers, especially blue‐collar or manual workers, share common political and economic interests which may be advanced through organized trade union and political action; secondly, that trade unions can form an effective alliance with left of centre parties in Parliament with the objective of forming a government in which workers' interests would be of central importance.
Labour movements in Europe derive from the reaction of the newly urbanized workers to industrialization in the nineteenth century. Marxism made a powerful impact on the emergence of labour movements in continental Europe and led to the formation of socialist political parties (Germany 1869); in Britain the labour movement was reformist rather than revolutionary and in the nineteenth century worked within the framework of the existing system of political parties (Labour Representation Committee formed 1900, Labour Party 1906).
The labour movement was strongly internationalist in character, emphasizing the shared interests between workers in different countries in opposing capitalist political regimes. However, in 1914 the socialist parties were swept up in a tide of nationalist fervour and, with the exception of a few individuals, supported the war efforts.
After 1917, labour movements were strongly influenced by the success of the Russian Bolsheviks. However, the established socialist and labour parties almost immediately turned their back on the ‘Third International’ organized from Moscow to coordinate revolutionary activity by the international labour movement, and separate communist parties were formed. Socialist and communist parties were locked in conflict during the inter‐war period. In some countries such as Britain, Germany, and the United States communists played a role within a single trades union movement, while in countries such as France the communists controlled their own trade unions which competed with socialist and Christian trade unions.
After the Second World War, when anti‐fascism provided an imperative for unity, the labour movements again divided and trade unions and socialist parties formed international organizations divided on Cold War lines into pro‐ and anti‐Communist groupings. Further weakening of the significance of the labour movement has occurred with the decline of manual employment, and the declining influence of trade unionism on socialist parties, especially in government.
The idea of the labour movement was revived by the role played in the 1950s and 1960s in the Third World by trade unions in the movements for freedom from colonial rule. However, post‐independence, the idea of independent trade unionism representing the rights of workers vis‐à‐vis governments, which often proclaimed themselves to be socialist, was often difficult to carry into effect.