History of the workers' movement in Britain, Part 1: The struggle of the working class to organise itself

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In this issue we begin a new occasional series, contributed by a close sympathiser, which looks at the struggle of the working class in Britain to organise itself in the era when capitalism was still a progressive, expanding system. It will examine the pioneering efforts of the proletariat to struggle on an economic and political terrain against inhuman capital and a ruthless bourgeoisie. We hope in this way to demonstrate the immense capacity of the working class to become aware of itself as a class with its own interests, and to create organisations which express its growing confidence and the need for solidarity.

If the working class today is to recover its confidence and solidarity in the face of decaying capitalism, in order to finally put an end to this completely bankrupt social system, it must recover its own history and draw all the possible lessons for its future struggles.

This first article covers the period from the French revolution of 1789 to the rise of Chartism. It shows clearly the evolution in the proletariat’s organisations, from conspiratorial sects to the creation of mass, national organisations of factory workers, and highlights the role of the creation of trade unions in this evolution.

Many today who agree with the ICC that the trade unions act against the working class find it difficult to accept that the trade unions ever expressed the interests of the working class, or that workers should have set up and supported them in the 19th century. The a-historical view that the trade unions have always been reactionary is a common one in the anarchist milieu, which also prefers the violent machine-breaking of the Luddites because this appears as a quasi-insurrectionary alternative to ‘peaceful’, ‘collaborationist’ trade unionism. This article aims to answer these arguments by placing developments in their proper historical and political context.

(These articles will complement our past series on the historic struggle of the working class in Britain to form a class party, which eventually covered the period up to the betrayal of social democracy in the first world war, running from WRs 198 to 237).

The inspiration of the French bourgeois revolution for the working class

The industrial revolution in Britain (1760s to1830s) went hand in hand with brutal repression and deeply reactionary politics, and from the moment of its birth the British proletariat was forced to try to organise itself under the direct threat of imprisonment, transportation or hanging; or more simply a volley of shots and a cavalry charge. As pioneers of the world proletariat, British workers struggled alone for the most elementary rights against both starvation and the concerted violence of a fearful ruling class, which mobilised more troops to suppress its own insurrectionary workers than to fight Napoleon.

The French bourgeois revolution was a turning point for both classes. Initially some radical fractions of the British bourgeoisie were enthusiastic, but sympathy was deepest among the workers, who showed enormous popular support for the republican politics of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and engaged in strikes and riots in support of France. Faced with such a mass radical movement, the bourgeoisie quickly gave way to panic, and Britain’s motives for going to war were explicitly counter-revolutionary: to eliminate the twin perceived dangers of revolution at home and abroad. Preparations against Napoleon’s armies were as much against the ‘enemy within’ as without, and even at the height of the invasion scare there was strong resistance to any arming of the seriously disaffected population.

Deserted by the radical wing of the bourgeoisie, the working class organised its own reform movement inspired by the French Jacobins. Radical groups like the London Corresponding Society, which stood for universal suffrage and annual parliaments, were mainly composed of skilled artisans and small tradesmen rather than factory workers, but their agitation embraced social and economic issues and expressed a genuine internationalism in the British proletariat, for example explicitly linking the struggle for democracy with the cause of Irish and Polish national liberation.

Government repression drove these working class Jacobins and trade unionists underground, where they were thrown into further disarray by the French revolution’s slide into terror. Some small minorities did become further radicalised, and there were shadowy preparations for an insurrection, but by drawing their inspiration from Jacobinism these minorities lacked a distinctly working class political programme, and their vision of revolution was restricted to that of a coup d’état supported by the ‘mob’. However, some working class Jacobins continued their political activity, to re-emerge in future waves of struggle, for example as Luddites during the wars with France (1803 to 1815), and as physical force Chartists in the 1830s.

The rise of the factory system and the reaction of ‘Luddism’

As soon as the working class, stunned at first by the noise and turmoil of the new system of production, had recovered its senses to some extent, it began to offer resistance, first of all in England, the native land of large-scale industry (...) The English factory workers were the champions, not only of the English working class, but of the modern working class in general, just as their theorists were the first to throw down the gauntlet to the theory of the capitalists.” (Marx, Capital, vol. 1)

It was above all the rise of the factory system which gave birth to the proletariat as a class with its own distinct interests. Industrialisation was a brutal experience: the introduction of machinery, primarily into the textile industry, resulted in the ferocious exploitation of the unskilled, mainly women and children, in the new mills and factories, while inexorably destroying traditional trades and the communities they supported. For hundreds and thousands of artisans and skilled workers, capitalist ‘progress’ was a catastrophe: whereas in the 1820s the number of hand-loom weavers, for example, rose to around 250,000, by the early 1840s this had fallen to just over 100,000, and only a few years later there were “little more than 50,000 starving wretches”(Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire). These workers, previously well organised and with a long tradition of independence and struggle, put up a fierce resistance to an inhuman system which quite literally in many cases meant their death.

Not surprisingly, in this period of capitalism’s advance the class struggle was partly a defence of immediate conditions but also often a rearguard struggle against proletarianisation and the real degradation of conditions it implied. It wasn’t new machinery as such that workers resisted, but the onslaught of capitalist ‘free competition’, which tore up surviving hard-won rights and protective legislation. The political arguments in support of this resistance naturally tended to look backwards for their justification: threatened woollen workers objecting to the shoddy goods of new capitalist entrepreneurs called on parliament to defend Elizabethan statutes and ancient customs, while pauperised agricultural workers fought for “the defence of the customary rights of the rural poor, as free born Englishmen, and the restoration of the stable social order which had - at least it seemed so in retrospect - guaranteed them” (Hobsbawm and Rude, Captain Swing). This past was undoubtedly romanticised and many, not long uprooted from the land, still dreamed of a return. But the resistance of the weavers and others in this period also presented a challenge to the political economy of the capitalist class, and in its widest sense expressed the confused desire to create an alternative social order, in which production was for social need, not profit.

This is the context for understanding the emergence of ‘Luddism’, which actually began as a semi-legal campaign by skilled woollen workers for a minimum wage and poor relief, and in defence of existing protective legislation, only going underground and turning to machine-breaking in response to government repression at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Luddism was certainly a politicised and highly disciplined movement, with an effective military organisation which was quite successful at least in its early phase. But more broadly this expressed the increasingly desperate struggle of the hand-loom weavers, and the revival of Luddism in 1817 was directed far more against the machinery itself, and further extensive machine-breaking during the slump of 1825 was almost the weavers’ last rebellion. The violence of Luddism was also partly an attempt to overcome the scattered nature of production in this declining sector, and can be contrasted with the massive struggles of the factory workers who increasingly took the lead in the class struggle, and which demonstrated an open, massive character, also highly disciplined but with very little violence, as in the first great cotton spinners’ strike of 1818.

Early trade unionism and the strategy of the bourgeoisie

The earliest combinations formed by workers against the capitalists were clandestine by necessity, formed in defiance of repressive legislation which outlawed strikes and trade unions and threatened workers with imprisonment, hard labour and transportation. But combinations grew, at least among skilled workers, in part because employers in some industries were willing to negotiate with their leaders, and with ‘illegal’ trade unions openly parading in the streets even backward bourgeois politicians were forced to recognise the impracticality of stamping them out.

The bourgeoisie had emerged from the war with backward landed interests (‘Old Corruption’) still in control of the state apparatus; indeed with their grip strengthened by the need for unity against a semi-insurrectionary proletariat. A movement emerged after the war calling for parliamentary reform, but due to the cowardice of the manufacturing bourgeoisie this was led by the middle class and petty bourgeoisie. The working class, reform’s most consistent supporter, formed a powerful and barely-controlled ‘physical force’ wing of this movement, which constantly threatened to get out of the control of the constitutionalist leadership. The strength of the working class, and its willingness to engage in insurrectionary struggles (as in Derbyshire and Yorkshire in 1817) and in open, mass demonstrations (as at ‘Peterloo’ in Manchester in 1819 when 11 peaceful demonstrators were killed and many hundreds wounded by cavalry), only provoked the bourgeoisie into passing even more repressive laws against public meetings and demonstrations.

But the more intelligent sections of the ruling class could see that in the long term such crude tactics were ineffective in controlling a growing industrial proletariat. With the repeal of the hated Combination Acts in 1824, peaceful trade unionism was finally made legal, although the bourgeoisie was still very careful to outlaw any use of violence in order to prevent any effective class struggle tactics. This marked a change of strategy by the bourgeoisie to contain the class struggle, involving an acceptance of trade unionism within the framework of capitalist political economy. Radical bourgeois MPs argued that the Acts were not consistent with the principles of free competition, and that their removal would soon lead to the peaceful coexistence of workers and employers.

The evolution of class organisation and consciousness

In fact, the following period saw a great advance in the self-organisation of the working class on both the political and economic terrain, with growing efforts to organise the factory workers, primarily in the textile industry, and to extend this organisation to create ‘general unions’ of all trades at a national level. There were also attempts – only partially successful – to co-ordinate solidarity action in support of victimised workers and extend struggles to other sectors, while improved trade conditions led to a wave of strikes in which the workers used their own class violence to enforce demands. This prompted the bourgeoisie to tighten up the legislation on ‘intimidation’, and selective repression certainly did not end - as shown by the famous case of the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’ (the six Dorset farm labourers transported in 1834 for organising a trade union).

The struggles of the factory workers also gave rise in this period to some of the earliest political and economic theorists of the socialist movement; men who, in Marx’s words, “threw down the gauntlet to the theory of the capitalists”. Robert Owen - the ‘model’ manufacturer, founder of experimental communities and advocate of cooperativism - was recognised by Marx and Engels, despite their vigorous critique of his prescriptive utopianism, as “the founder of English Socialism”. By 1830 Owenism was a popular movement of the politicised working class. Others - men like Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson and James Morrison - were also active at this time in constructing a proletarian theory of political economy based on a primitive theory of labour value, which demanded that the workers should receive the full product of their labour from the capitalists.

Legalisation of trade unions signified a strengthening of the left-wing of the bourgeoisie, but in 1830, just when the right-wing showed signs of weakening, a huge revolt by agricultural workers coinciding with the July revolution in France forced it to oppose the slightest reform. Britain appeared once again to be in a revolutionary crisis; in Bristol workers controlled the city for several days, Nottingham castle was burned and Derby jail sacked. The manufacturing bourgeoisie finally acted by organising a peaceful, counter-revolutionary reform movement in order to force concessions to its own political interests, while the right (the Tories) tried to provoke the working class into violence in order to justify a backlash. The resulting Reform Act of 1832 was a con trick; a new accommodation of ruling class interests masquerading as a reform to divert the threat posed by the working class, and the resistance of die-hard elements in the Church and landed aristocracy only lent greater credibility to this manoeuvre. Even so, there were many working class radicals (for example Bronterre O’Brien and his Poor Man’s Guardian) who saw through the trick and denounced the Act as a cynical consolidation of ruling class power.

One lasting consequence of this defeat was to engender a deep suspicion of political reforms in the British working class and to encourage the growth of syndicalist ideas, i.e. that the trade unions themselves could become organs of dual power, set up their own parliament and ultimately abolish wages. 1834 was certainly a high point for the working class’s struggle to organise itself, with successful solidarity action from clubs and societies throughout the country in support of workers in Derby sacked for belonging to a union, leading to the formation of a ‘Grand National Consolidated Trades Union’ by delegates gathered in London. The ‘Grand National’ grew rapidly with half a million members extending to previously unorganised sectors like agricultural and women workers. But the slump of 1834-5 inevitably saw the collapse of these attempts to create a national trade union organisation and forced a reversion to local societies. In these conditions the working class increasingly turned to the struggle for the vote as the key to political power. MH 12/06


History of the workers' movement: