The Middle East has been an area of conflict between the big capitalist countries for more than a century. At first, it was Russia against England, France and the USA. Now, following the collapse of Russia, the USA is seeking to muscle in with its superior military forces. It is not only about oil (the supply and the price), it’s about strategic domination of the area. American capital has been hit by a very serious crisis, set to become the worst in the last 70 years, and already millions of American workers are suffering from its deadly effects. The USA therefore intends to penetrate the region with the aim of increasing profits by force of arms.
The workers are the true victims of bourgeois wars. Today, it is the American and Iraqi workers who are directly in the firing line, whether as civilians or in uniform; and then there are all the other proletarians in the adjoining areas, i.e. the Arabs, Kurds, Israelis; and finally the workers in the rest of the world, impoverished, terrorised, and repressed in the poor South as in the increasingly similar North.
Hair-splitting arguments are being deployed by equally capitalist States against the war. Not because they are lovers of peace and horrified by the imminent carnage, but because they have their own selfish bourgeois interests to protect, and don’t yet see War as necessary to defend them. The Euro coalition, in the measure to which it is resisting war, doesn’t represent a force for peace, in opposition to a war-mongering Dollar coalition, but just one of the line-ups in the fast approaching inter-imperialist conflict. From this conflict there will emerge not an impossible, different Europe, but inevitably a direct clash between global capitalist juggernauts: Europe, USA, Russia, China, Japan …, and the Third World War will be just as imperialist as the First and Second World Wars.
In England, the only solution that the assorted left-wingers, pacifists, and trade-unionists can recommend to proletarians is urging the United Nations – a gang of imperialist diplomats – to decide if war is “justified”, and maybe, why not, even launch a “peaceful invasion”. As though the U.N. wasn’t just as anti-proletarian and reactionary as the USA! It all just goes to confirm the Communist view that ’Democracy’, the pride of bourgeois civilisation everywhere, is just a convenient cover for a deadly and well-oiled militarism; and that it serves as a brilliant ruse to get millions of proletarians, from the offices and the factories, to march off to the trenches in an orderly way.
Meanwhile, why are the trade unions just echoing the bourgeois media? Shouldn’t they be taking steps to do something about the inevitable increased exploitation, and restriction of trade-union liberties, that inevitably goes hand in hand with war? Just the rank-and-file organisations in Italy, as far as we know, have said they will declare a general strike on the day the first bombs fall on Iraq.
Capitalism thirsts for war
Only the International Working Class
has the power to oppose capitalism’s deadly plans
Only the proletariat, a class WITHOUT COUNTRY – a class which has nothing to gain from “its ruling class” achieving either economic domination or winning the war – has the historical prospect of achieving social emancipation, and has the power to impose it, against Capital’s wars and against its just as monstrous and unbearable peace. In order to become explicit, this power will need to be organised and directed: they will have to strengthen their class based trade-union organisations in order to mobilise the great majority of workers on a national and international scale. Finally, there will need to be a strong and influential International Communist Party – the indispensible instrument for leading the working class onto the front of a revolutionary opposition to imperialist war.
For the emancipation of the workers!
For class solidarity with the proletariat of Iraq and the Middle East!
Against War between States; For Class War against the capitalist regime!
The war triggered off by the Israeli State against the towns and cities of the West Bank is showing ever more clearly its anti-proletarian agenda, and is more similar to the conflict in Lebanon than previous wars. We see systematic destruction of the Palestinian civil infrastructure and the physical elimination of militant members of its political organisations; civilians subject to random arrests and searches; bulldozers forcing their way through mounds of wrecked hovels in the refugee camps, but the army’s main intention is not so much to pursue its declared aim of the “War on terrorism” but rather to repress the region’s proletarian masses and force them into submission. Just as in Sabra and Chatila twenty years ago, what we have witnessed in Jenin, Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron are not episodes in a war between States, but rather a civil war against the working class. And it is only proletarians, incidentally, in stark contrast to the cowardly and corrupt forces of “Palestinian Autonomy”, who have been able to slow up the advance of the much more powerful Israeli troops and even inflict casualties.
That the aim of the enterprise is not combating “terrorism” we can deduce from the almost daily attacks that still continue to terrorise the inhabitants of the Israeli cities, even though the West bank and Gaza is encircled by a ruthlessly enforced security cordon.
Let us retrace our steps a bit.
The Oslo Agreement was very advantageous to the Israeli bourgeoisie, and satisfied it as regards its territorial, economic, social and economic demands and indeed left it with very little more to wish for. This agreement, accepted by the timid and corrupt Palestinian bourgeoisie, provided for the creation of a puppet State, an out and out “Bantustan”, where it promised to confine its own proletariat, for use on the spot or in Israel as cheap labour.
The bourgeois National Palestinian Authority, equipped with a strong repressive apparatus supplied and trained by the Israelis and Americans, took on the job of maintaining order in exchange for being able to carry on its business affairs in Israel’s shadow. The deal would also ensure a fair share of the easy profits to the Arabic countries and to Europe, all of whom have been interested in dividing up and maintaining control over this highly strategically important region for the last fifty years; keeping the peace by keeping the Palestinians (and the Israelis) as perpetual war hostages.
The defence of the Oslo Agreement has been taken to ridiculous lengths by the Palestinian leadership, whose submissive collaboration with the Israeli bourgeoisie and its State is now complete. The Palestinian police and secret services have collaborated fully with the Israeli police and secret services and with the secret services of the United States by providing information damaging not only to their current opponents, but also to the most combative proletarian groups: that is when they haven’t succeeded in repressing them themselves, or machine-gunning them down in the streets. And it wouldn’t be long before the leaders of the Palestinian trade-unions became a subject of interest to their own “autonomous” police force.
Even on the economic front, collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian employers is close: “Beyond the links formalised in the Agreement – writes N.Pacadou in Le Monde diplomatique in March 2001 – the reality of the economic dependence of the Palestinian territories on the Jewish State maintains networks of interests that unite the neighbouring “military-commercial complex” of the Palestinian National Authority to Israeli officials, without whom the monopoly on imports of raw materials enjoyed by the Palestinian public societies wouldn’t be exercised”. The article continues: “The initial ambiguity about what constitutes autonomy thus condemns the Palestinian Authority to an impossible task: to carry forward the national struggle by collaborating with the occupiers”.
The reason for the failure of the Oslo Agreement is that the Palestinian machinery of repression hasn’t been up to the police duties assigned to it by international capitalism, and nor could it be.
Knowing this full well, the Israeli State, as well as it being in its own interests, has never ceased pursuing its expansionist policies, planting new colonies, expropriating land and water, and opposing any argument for the return of the millions of refugees still living in camps dispersed throughout the Middle-East.
In the light of the tragedy of these last few weeks, Arafat has been accused of turning down the peace agreement offered to him by the Barak government in 1999 and as therefore responsible for its failure and the consequent ruin of the Palestinian people. But that isn’t so. The crafty old fox, the living symbol of failed Palestinian irredentism, was evidently willing to sign that agreement but was prevented from making such an out and out capitulation by the rallying of the disinherited masses i.e. the ones who would have to pay for it, as had happened so many times before, with their blood, sweat and tears.
In an interview in the December 23rd edition of Le Monde, Ami Ayalon, head of the Israeli internal security services from 1996 to 2000 – someone who knows his enemy – had two interesting things to say on the subject: “Their’s (the Palestinians) is not folly but hopeless desperation (…) Contrary to what we are having hammered into our heads, Yasser Arafat neither prepared nor triggered off the Intifada. The explosion against Israel was a spontaneous response to lack of hope regarding the ending of the occupation”. It was the disinherited of Palestine, those on starvation wages, those who live in hovels and tumbledown houses, trapped within the refugee camps and who have no hope of a better life who spontaneously took to the streets and opposed not only the armoured artillery and aeroplanes of the Israeli army with stones and the odd gun, but also the very well paid Palestinian police. This second Intifada is characterised by its class content, by its struggle against the corrupt Palestinian government, the police, corrupt trade-unions, the increasingly demanding employers; a class oppression that comes on top of and unites with the Israeli State’s military oppression, making life increasingly difficult, hard and unsustainable. The Intifada therefore continues, despite the mass arrests and “targeted executions” of the most combative militants, eliminated by the Israeli army on the basis of lists provided by the Palestinian Authority.
This extremely tense situation has enabled the extremist Islamic parties to carve out a role; enjoying the financial backing of bourgeois States in the East and South certainly, but also probably a few in the West as well. To push adolescents towards self-destruction isn’t difficult, especially if they’ve grown up surrounded by so much humiliation and injustice. But Terrorism against the civilian population of Israel is a suicidal policy which is counter-productive most of all for the “Palestinian cause”. Our view of the conflict, based on class, sees this terrorism as performing a function which complements that of government, and in fact is necessary to it: keeping the two peoples separate by blinding the Israeli population with terror – something not so difficult to obtain given the Jewish past. This terrorism has turned out to be so useful, and so “convenient” in its timing, that it can hardly fail to cross our minds that maybe the secret services of both sides have been involved; if not directly, at least insofar as they haven’t done much to prevent it happening. Only the massacres of civilians has justified the increasingly brutal military interventions against the Palestinian population; only through those massacres have Jews reached a stage where once more they are prepared to lay down their lives in war.
To understand such a situation we need of course also to take into account what is happening in the capitalist economy at both global and local levels. The economic crisis has been putting the squeeze on Israeli industry, signalling the end of the Israeli “economic miracle” which was based mainly on leading-edge industries, computers, electronics, telecommunications and research. The world economic recession of the past year has now bitten in deeper still.
The same necessary military response to the economic crisis which constrained the capitalists in the United States to find an enemy and trigger off the war in Afghanistan (which they are threatening to extend to the Middle East with an attack on Iraq) has pushed the powerful military-industrial machinery of Israel to launch its total “war”; against the Palestinian territories, even in the absence of any strategic or “national” requirements.
The Israeli State though is not diplomatically isolated in this war, despite the propaganda machine depicting it otherwise: the United States are on Israel’s side, as are Russia and Europe; indeed it is very much in the interests of these major commercial partners of Tel Aviv, despite all the clamour, to gain ground in the area at Washington’s expense. Everybody, fine words aside, is in agreement with Sharon: before any negotiations start the “job must be finished”, hundreds of proletarians will have to end up in the communal graves in the suburbs, their neighbourhoods devastated, their organisations destroyed.
The Palestinian proletariat is on its own. And the Israeli proletariat is on its own, both sacrificial victims being slowly strangled by a huge chain of capitalist interests and machinations which have the entire world in its grip; Bush, Putin and Solana etc are doing the strangling just as much as Sharon, Peres, Mubarak and Arafat and co.
Much of this was realised by those Israeli reservists who publicly refused to go and humiliate and kill their class brothers in the Palestinian territories. It is a sign of the crumbling of that unity of all classes that in Israel, as everywhere else, constitutes the basis of stability for the bourgeois dictatorship. It is highly instructive and significant that this stand taken by the reservists, even though weak and lacking a clear class perspective, has been the only concrete act of solidarity which the Palestinian proletariat has received. A people that oppresses another people will never be free. The proletariat in Israel will never be able to emancipate itself unless alongside the Proletariat of Palestine and the neighbouring countries.
The demonstrations which have taken place in the main Middle Eastern
cities in solidarity with Palestine certainly show how serious the situation
is at a social level, but as long as the proletariat in the Middle East
lacks a political class perspective, indignation will quickly be channelled
in directions which are nationalist, conservative, “irredentist”, religious
if not outright pro-governmental. The exploited masses are told that their
enemy is in Israel when the enemy is in their own countries, amongst the
dominant classes linked to bloodsucking imperialism, who for decades have
used pro-Palestinian rhetoric to keep themselves in power. These various
bourgeoisies are just as responsible as the State of Israel for the inhuman
conditions suffered by the Palestinians, and are fully paid up members
of the international alliance which is crippling workers throughout the
III.3.d - The Trade Union Question
The final body of theses on the Trade Union question was the result of a long debate in the commission chaired by Radek. The theses presented at the congress by comrade Radek on the “The Trade Union Movement, Factory Committees and the Third International” corresponded to the positions supported by the German CP against the KAPD opposition and were directed against neo-syndicalist tendencies. Apart from some statements which attributed a revolutionary role to the trade unions which the Italian Left found a bit excessive, these theses reasserted the revolutionary Marxist point of view upheld by Il Soviet. The unions and factory committees only become revolutionary when conquered and directed by the communist parties. The Factory committees cannot be substituted for the trades unions which, organized at an industrial level, play a very important part within communist economic organization.
The communist tactic doesn’t therefore consist of boycotting the traditional trade unions, even when they are directed by reformists and yellows, but of conquering them from within.
Maybe it would have been beneficial to link criticism of “boycotting of the trade unions on principle” to a condemnation of the “erroneous conception which holds that the proletariat would be mobilised not by the party’s political struggle for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but around the economic action of a revolutionary trade union organisation” which, having expropriated the capitalists, would directly take over management of production. This point of principle wasn’t highlighted by Moscow. The debate showed that theoretical divergences still persisted and numerous questions remained unresolved.
Article 14 of the Statutes of the Communist International asserted the dependence of the trade unions on the party: “Trade unions which accept Communist ideas and are united on an international scale under the leadership of the ECCI are, at the present time, forming a trade-union section of the Communist International. These trade unions send their representatives to World Congresses of the Communist International through the Communist Parties of the countries concerned. The trade-union section of the Communist International delegates one representative to the ECCI with full voting rights. The ECCI has the right to send a representative with full voting rights. The ECCI has the right to send a representative with full voting rights to the trade-union section of the Communist International”.
This resolution obviously encountered bitter opposition from the revolutionary
syndicalists. A year later, a compromise was reached with the constitution
of the Red International of Labour Unions.
III.3.e - The Italian Question
The PSI leadership’s tolerant attitude towards the Right had already been sternly condemned when the Conditions of Admission to the International had considered the Italian Question. Then Lenin’s pamphlet, Zinoviev’s speeches on the Conditions of Admission, Lenin’s speech and Bukharin’s introductory speech to the Theses on Revolutionary Parliamentarism sternly would criticize the PSI. Serrati answered with protests, Graziadei put forward reservations, Bombacci and Polano backed the criticisms put forward by the Russian comrades, the representative of the Abstentionist Fraction rather than treating Italy as an isolated case intervened in a more general manner setting out from a position of principle.
The problem was bound to come to the fore in the debate on Lenin’s theses on the Fundamental tasks of the Communist International. The commission invited all the Italian delegates to voice their opinions on the famous thesis 17: “In regard to the Italian Socialist Party, the Second Congress of the Communist International recognizes that the revision of the programme undertaken by this party at its Congress at Bologna last year represents a very important stage in the transformation to Communism and that the proposals made to the National Council of the Party by the Turin Section and published in the magazine Ordine Nuovo of May 8, 1920 all correspond with the fundamental principles of communism. The Congress asks the Italian Socialist Party to examine at its next congress, which will take place in accordance with its own statutes and the general conditions of entry into the Communist International, the proposals that have been made and all the decisions of the Second Congress of the Communist International, especially with regard to the parliamentary faction, the trade unions and the non-Communist elements in the Party”.
There were those amongst the Italian delegates who didn’t accept this formula. Serrati and Graziadei observed that at the time of the National Council the Turin section had taken sides against the party leadership over the Piemontese disbandment; extolling the value of this section would mean approving of its undisciplined attitude. Bombacci observed, morevover, that it would have been dangerous to approve the syndicalist tendencies of the Ordine Nuovo and its vision of factory councils. Polano argued that the Executive Commission of the Turin Section was composed for the most part of abstentionists and, as a consequence, approving of the work of our fraction meant disavowing the parliamentary question. The representative of the Communist Fraction also pointed out the possibility of misunderstandings arising around the acceptance of the positions of Ordine Nuovo: positions which weren’t only contrary to the Congress’s directives on the trade-union question and the Soviets but had supported party unity right up to immediately before the Milan Convention. Lenin and Bukharin declared that they weren’t well informed on Ordine Nuovo’s positions and that a particular document was being referred to. Serrati tried in vain to avoid the convocation of the National Congress.
The question was discussed again during a Congress plenary session. Serrati protested again, Bombaci and Polano would agree, Graziadei attempted to round off the corners by demanding that the position of the maximalist majority at the Bologna Congress be recognized. The abstentionist representative made a brief declaration in which he stated that he wasn’t interested so much in the form of the theses concerning the PSI as its content. He noted that the behaviour of the PSI after the Bologna Congress didn’t correspond to the criteria for membership of the CI given the presence in its ranks of openly opportunist and social-democratic elements. He stated also that as regards the question of anti-parliamentarism, his fraction would be disciplined subject to the decisions of the congress but he asked that all the other resolutions be rigourously observed by the PSI as regards non-communist members, the parliamentary group and the trade unions led by reformists.
After the closing of the congress, the Italian delegates were invited to an extraordinary session of the Executive Committee of the CI in the course of which was read a draft appeal to Italian comrades presented by Bukharin with a few additions by Zinoviev. This appeal prompted lively discussions. Bombacci, Polano and the abstentionist fraction would recognize its timeliness. Our comrade expressed reservations regarding the factory councils and trade union movement. Serrati would oppose the appeal itself, but his polemicising on the details couldn’t put in question the fundamental necessity of the supreme organ of the CI formally inviting the Italian workers’ movement to abide by the decisions of the congress and to assume a truly communist character.
The ECCI reserved to itself the prerogative of making the final draft of the appeal which was then sent to Serrati. The letter, having expounded on the political and social situation in Italy and affirmed that it was eminently revolutionary, declared that whilst rejecting the method of fragmentary action, it was indispensable to create the conditions for a generalised revolutionary movement and to take account of the fact that every day’s delay could be of advantage to the bourgeoisie which was in the process of organizing to defend itself. There was also an analysis of the deficiencies of the proletarian movement, the incapacity and uncertainty of the majority of the party faced with the right-wingers of the parliamentary group and the trade unions.
The letter concluded by saying that all the conditions of membership of the international were put to the PSI in the form of an ultimatum: if they weren’t fulfilled the International would be forced to address the Italian workers directly, that is to expel the PSI from the Comintern.
The behaviour of the PSI was therefore severely judged by the International
Congress. This can be explained by the fact that as far as the Bolsheviks
were concerned the Italian proletariat would in the very near future be
called to take part in highly important actions and maybe to give the signal
for the armed insurrection in the capitalist West. And if Moscow was more
exacting in its demands towards the PSI than other parties in other countries
it was because it knew there was a core of real communists which it could
trust, which wasn’t the case in France or Germany where there hadn’t been
a radical split as had happened at Livorno.
Thus Moscow demanded that the Right be expelled in the very near future; for the maximalists it was a drastic requirement, but for the abstentionist Left it was not enough: the split should also involve the centre! From that autumn, Lenin would however launch a vigorous campaign against Serrati.
III.4 - The Formation of the National Sections
Following the International’s 2nd Congress, several Communist Parties were formed. Apart from the PC d’I, however, most of the new Communist Parties only answered very approximately to what had been fixed in the well-known 21 conditions of membership to the CI. This was in large part due also to the fact that the Bolsheviks had a tendency to widen the net of the tactical and organizational criteria used in the admission procedures. Later on, these factors would inevitably weigh heavily on the fortunes of the International, and the situation would be aggravated by Soviet Russia’s prolonged isolation. Thus it happened that the Comintern leadership, instead of getting the vital support which it so urgently needed form the proletarian movement in the West, found its difficulties compounded with further obstacles: namely the inveterate traditions of theoretical, programmatic and organisational laxity inherited from the parties of the 2nd international.
Thus in the majority of cases new parties rose on foundations far closer to the 2nd than the 3rd international. In Western Europe, exception made for the Italian Left, the groups which had opposed the increasing degeneration of the 2nd international were too weak, too fragile on the theoretical plane, to be able to counter-pose a real revolutionary alternative to the dominant course. The International Executive was faced with a dilemma: what was it to do with the parties still linked by a thousand threads to the democratic and parliamentarist tradition of the 2nd international which, nevertheless, pushed along by the masses,had arrived at Moscow? And what was it to do with those revolutionary vanguards who were sincerely revolutionary but as far as their Marxism was concerned weren’t much better than the Right and Centre?
These dilemmas were arising in the early 1920s, at a time when the masses
were lined up in the revolutionary camp and were placing the problem of
taking power firmly onto the agenda.
IV.1 - The Founding of the Communist Party of Italy: Livorno 1921
Following the Communist International’s 2nd Congress, the problem arose, for both the Socialist and the Communist Parties, of immediate expulsion of the reformists. This had been decided at the World Congress.
In Italy, the Maximalists, profiting from their numerical superiority inside the PSI obstructed Moscow’s directives. This had the positive consequence of bringing about the constitution of a Communist party on the basis of a rift with maximalism which was thus free from reformism and centrism. The process of forming the PCd’I, compared with that of other parties in the Western countries introduced features which were not only different but opposed: thanks to the existence of a well-defined Communist nucleus.
Thus at the Livorno Congress the birth of the Italian section happened on the basis of a radical break not only with the reformists but above all with the maximalists. This split was the fruit of a long process of decantation. The Abstentionist Communist Fraction played a determining role in this process of decanting the forces destined to form the future Communist Party. At the October meeting in Milan, as at the Imola Conference in November, and also at the time of the Livorno Congress in 1921, three currents, with different origins and line-ups, came together around a single platform which regrouped the theses and considerations about the conditions of admission established at the CI’s 2nd Congress.
The first of these groupings, the Astentionists, had a well-structured national network which covered the North as well as the South; our denigrators wish to view the Abstentionist Fraction as a Southern-Neapolitan phenomenon, that is, restricted to a zone which they consider capitalistically backward, which, incidentally, it isn’t. The Fraction’s theses, with its organizational network and its centralized way of functioning, represented the highest point, parallel to that of Bolshevism, of the Workers’ movement in the West.
The work of theoretical, programmatic and organisational preparation which brought the Italian party into being was carried out first by Il Soviet in Naples and then by the national organ Il Comunista in Imola.
The second of these groupings corresponded to the Turinese Ordine Nuovo group which declared that it wanted to set itself up as a “school of thought”, a place to meet and debate; it had a very elastic network of readers with no organizational structure and was numerically ill-defined. The Ordine Nuovo group, whose theoretician, Antonio Gramsci, was closer to idealism than Marxism, disciplined itself to the Fraction’s positions more through revolutionary instinct than through theoretical clarity.
The third of the groups was represented by the extreme left of maximalism.
To our detractors, who have always depicted our current as suffering from sectarian author-itarianism and as incapable of meeting politically with other groups, we can state that the three component parts mentioned above, from 1920 to 1922, submerged each of their particular political identities and united around the same political faith, determined to work with alacrity towards a split which was considered inevitable, and of benefit to, the revolutionary movement.
The Communist Fraction of Imola formed by the fusion of these three currents appeared at the Livorno Congress with a programme conceived not as a platform striving to gain the maximum consensus, but, on the contrary, as basis of the programme, which couldn’t be discussed, of the new party. A comrade belonging to the Fraction wrote in Avanti! Of 23.11.20 an article entitled “Towards the Communist Party” from which we cite the following passage: “We cannot accept, antidemocratic though it might be, as ’ultima ratio’ the arithmetical expression of a party consultation which isn’t a party. The recognition of the correctness of the majority opinion starts where homogeneity of programme and aims start; we don’t accept it in a society which is divided into classes, within a proletariat necessarily dominated by bourgeois suggestions, within a party which includes too many petty bourgeois elements, and which historically has oscillated between the old and new Internationals, and which isn’t therefore in its thought or practice the class party of Marx”.
At Livorno the Communist Fraction appeared determined to split regardless
of the voting outcome in order to not paralyse the fraction and the proletariat
up until the next party congress.
On June 6, 1836 a group of London artisans and Operatives met for the purpose of forming London Working men into the nucleus of an independant Labour Party. This meeting was called by hardened veterans of class and radical struggles most of whom were Owenites by inspiration, and was in the wake of other similar attempts in the previous year. The working class was still smarting from the shock of the betrayal of the middle-classes at the time of the reform bill of 1832, for the latter, after having rallied the working classes to the cause of suffrage had promptly turned on their shortlived allies after having won their cause. That this was still the subject of much resentment is witnessed by an extract from an address which the newly constituted organization issued: "There is at present a contest between the two great parties both in and out of parliament – between the agricultural and privileged classes on the one hand and the moneyed and commercial classes on the other. We have little to expect from either of them. There are persons among the moneyed classes who, to deceive their fellow men, have put on a cloak of reform; many boast of freedom while they help to enslave us, preach justice whilst they help to oppress us’. Towards the end of this address, it was noted: ’There are in the United Kingdom 6,023,752 males over 21 years of age, only 840,000 have a vote, and owing to the unequal state of representation about one-fifth of that number have the power of returning a majority of members".
The association spread its influence rapidly, and branches were soon started all over England. For many in the other classes, the very fact that working men should be in an organization in which they were involved in all aspects of its work, was in itself a declaration of independence, for hitherto it was deemed necessary to have someone allegedly ’more competent’ or ’respectable’ to organize things, and to have some well-known political or parliamentary ’lion’ as the speaker. Instead, the L.W.A. assumed that any member of the working classes has a store of wisdom about social science superior to the other classes.
In 1837 the London Working Mens Association, With the support of radicals, drew up a petition in Parliamentary form, embodying the following six points: (1) Equal representation (2) Universal Suffrage )3) Annual Parliaments (to make bribery more difficult) (4) No property qualifications for M.P’s (5) Vote by ballot (to protect the elector) (6) Payment to members (to enable workers to sit in parliament).
At it’s first public meeting, the association urged all those attempting reform to support only those candidates at the 1837 elections who would support the "People’s Charter" as the six points were now called. Women’s suffrage was however withdrawn, it being thought that it might prejudice the possibility of obtaining manhood suffrage. The Charter was to be backed by a petition to support the demands, and "missionaries" were sent out all over the country to advocate it, as a result, it was soon possible to report the foundation or affiliation of over a hundred societies in other parts of the land. The Birmingham Political Union soon signified its assent. This society had been active in fighting for the 1832 Reform Bill, and its support was to be a key factor in ensuring support for the charter in the Midlands, and enabling Chartist agitation to become far more widespread than otherwise might have occurred. The Charter, now drafted as a parliamentary bill was published on May 8,1838.
Scottish trades now organized a big demonstration for May 21 in Glasgow, with more than seventy trades societies reported as having marched. The object was to cause the Scottish people to adopt and sign the national petition for the Charter. The Birmingham Political Union was reviving the idea of a General Strike and also putting the idea of "A National convention" back on the agenda, despite the controversial reception the idea had met with in 1833 with its overtones of the French revolution. This petition was to be presented to Parliament.
This became the signal for mass meetings all over the country. At Manchester 300,000 collected with banners of a threatening character. "Murder demands justice" was a motto inscribed under a picture of the Peterloo massacre. Another showed a banner with a hand grasping a dagger with a scroll, "O tyrants! Will you force us to this?" Demonstrations became military reviews with the workers marching in columns with bands and standard bearers to the places of assembly. but since demonstrations by day caused loss of wages and the authorities thwarted meetings in the local town halls, by the end of the year these became sensational nocturnal gatherings with torchlight processions.
Most commentators date the formal launch of the Chartist movement to a vast meeting at Newhall Hill, Birmingham, on 6 August 1838, where the ideas for a ’national convention’ to present the charter to Parliament backed up by a petition, were formally ratified. From now on, in all parts delegates were elected for the coming congress, and there was fundraising in the form of collecting a "National Rent", though these collections were considerably hampered by having to be raised at a town level so as not to fall foul of the legislation that prevented alliances between organizations.
But before describing the political events further, what was the context to Chartism and who were its main adherents ? It was a time of extreme hardship, for during the late eighteenth and early nineteeth century there had been a population explosion that was to be exacerbated by the stock market crash in 1836 and the more extended crisis from 1837-42. This sent hosts of unemployed factory workers and handloom weavers to seek parish relief, whilst the measures of the harsh new Poor law were pushed through by the bourgeoisie, against the interests of the Landowners, in the new reformed parliament. Response to the new poor law was extremely fierce with the two leaders of the movement, Richard Oastler and the Rev. Stephens both proponents of violence in the fight against it. This movement set the stage for Chartism with its mass meetings and also its direct collaboration with Chartism.
Britain at this time had a highly diversified labour force, in some respects more varied than anytime before or since. In the 1830’s, cotton handloom weavers still outnumbered power-looms by five to two and were affected not only by increasing mechanization but also by a glutted labour market. This in part because the prosperity of many handloom weavers during the war years, had encouraged a steady flow of workers into the trade, enabled by the fact that weaving was one of the easiest trades to learn and could be learnt in a matter of weeks. Also, it was difficult for a male handloom weaver to move into the power-loom branch, as women and girls could work the new machines. In the woollen areas of Yorkshire, a similar massive movement to machine production was taking place.
Attempts to unionize on the part of the hand-loom weavers was a failure as they were both dispersed in their various workshops and working in a doomed industry. These dispossessed handloom weavers and outworkers, those in the decaying industries clearly affected by the growth of mechanization, were to represent an extremely militant element within Chartism. W.Cooke Taylor, in his tour of Industrial Lancashire found a reckless desperation among the handicraft workers of Padiham which was unequalled by anything he witnessed elsewhere. ’We wait for the word to begin’, was openly stated by every handloom weaver or block printer he met there. But despite this militancy, all too often the weavers yearned for a machineless, pastoral past of gainful self-employment, as a result of which they were to bring a reactionary perspective to the struggle for the Charter.
The London Working Men’s Association with its membership representing shoemakers, printers, cabinet makers, tailors and coach builders, represented different interests. This group, along with the newly risen mechanics and engineers, formed an aristocracy of labour. They enjoyed a considerably higher standard of living than most workers, and were linked socially with small shop keepers and master manufacturers, who also engaged to some extent in Chartist activities. However, even the position of the skilled craftsman had been badly affected by the repeal in 1813 of the clauses in the Elizabethan statute of artificers which had insisted upon a seven years apprenticeship, and now unapprenticed and unskilled labourers entered the formerly protected crafts.
As far as union organization went, this was still in a very rudimentary stage and there were different demands from different sectors. The industrial worker was striving for subsistence against his employer, the ’polished dandy who has been taught at great expense, at boarding schools and colleges, that he is not to work for his bread’. For them the contrast between the wage earner and the boss was far more stark than for the artisans. The artisans represented the labour aristocracy and their demands were that of maintaining the privileges of their trades, along with the masters, against unskilled labour and protecting their status and independence.
Both sectors though were concerned with the problem of entry into the trades, the artisans by protecting traditional apprenticeship arrangements, and the new factory working unions by "creating an ’artificial’ apprenticeship system. At both ’national’ conferences of the cotton spinners in 1829 and 1830, it was agreed that spinners were to be allowed only to train members of their families and poor relations of millowners. The Glasgow spinners went further and tried to prevent mobility by excluding those who had not started as a piecer in Glasgow". (Popular Movements, c. 1830-1850, W.H. Fraser) In the words of William Lovett and Francis Place – both involved in the drawing up of the Charter and both involved in Union activity – the principal object of the unions was ’to obtain a fair standard of wages’, an attitude effectively imprisoning workers within a corporatist framework.
Bronterre O’Brien, the ’school-master of Chartism’, informed his readers that: "A fair day’s wage is a very captivating sort of phrase, but may be moulded into as many different meanings. Under present conditions there is no possibility of realising that demand. The combined power of capital, machinery, and competition must continually reduce the wages and prospects of working men to promote their interests by trades unions alone. Trades unions, at best, can only prevent the employers cutting down the wages of mechanics and artisans to the level of the agricultural labourer. The trade union is only in some degree efficacious in those branches of labour in which the personal skill of the mechanic stills plays an important part. Is there any hope that without an entire change of the system an operative will be able to command a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work? The thing is, in my opinion, impossible". We shall see dramatic confirmation however, during the ’turn-out’ of 1842, of the working-classes ability to move beyond unionism, whilst within Trades organizations, and shed the corporatist framework in times of extreme hardship.
Owenism was the main influence through the years 1837-42, emerging from its decline after the failure of the General unions. A radical politician of the middle classes to whom this state of affairs was repugnant noted "Owenism, as those are aware who habitually watch the progress of opinion, is at present in one form or another the actual creed of a great portion of the working classes". This was certainly the case with respect to virtually all the Chartist leaders, and if one traces the twists and turns of the various episodes of Chartism, it is possible to see ’Utopian Socialism’ stamped over every facet of it from start to finish. Beer comments: "The masses of the working class who adhered to Chartism adopted the social criticism of Owenism, but they rejected his dogmas of salvation, which Owen considered precisely the most important part of the system and he regarded Chartism therefore as a retrograde step". (History of British Socialism, vol.2, p.46.).
There were, however, multifarious other approaches. O’Brien, himself influenced by Owen, was influenced by Bray and Hodgskin, the English economists who were amongst those laying a basis for the criticism of vulgar economy. Indeed, O’Brien was in contact with Hodgskin who approved of O’Brien’s practical application of his work. O’Brien was also an admirer of Buonarrotti, and translated his ’Conspiracy of Equals’ into English. He thought that "with the Charter, national ownership of land, currency, and credit, people would soon discover what wonders of production, distribution, and exchange might be achieved by associated labour, in comparison with the exertions of isolated labour. Thence would gradually arise the true social state, or the realities of socialism, in contradistinction to the present dreams of it. And doubtless the ultimate consequences would be the universal prevalence of a state of society not essentially different from that contrived by Owen. But the idea of jumping at once from our present iniquitous and corrupt state of society into Owen’s social paradise, without any previous recognition of human rights and without establishing a single law or institution to rescue the people from their present brutalised condition of ignorance and vassalage, is a chimera" (National Reformer and Manx Weekly Review, Jan 30, 1847)
O’Brien was to exert a great influence on Julian Harney, who wished to emulate the french revolutionaries and who was later to form International organisations that laid the basis of the First International.
Another main influence was that of Irish groups like the ’United Irishmen’
and the ’Whiteboys’. These groups were mainly to exert their influence
by way of Feargus O’Connor who was a member of both organizations. The
latter was a conspiratorial organization formed by small-holders to resist
the enlosures of the cattle-barons who were fencing off more and more land
to graze the newly profitable cattle, and the former had been formed as
an Irish Nationalist movement through an alliance of disgruntled colonists
and members of the catholic population. O’Connor would set up a rival organization
to the London Working Mens Association called the Great Northern Union.
It was this organisation which would specifically define a set of attitudes
for those who would identify themselves as ’physical force’ Chartists.
It resolved in its programme "That physical force shall be resorted
to, if necessary, in order to secure the equality of the law and the blessings
of those institutions which are the birthright of free men(...) the union
should recognize no authority save that which emanates from the legitamate
source of all honour, namely, from the people". Harney and O’Connor
worked closely together, with Harney eventually becoming editor of O’Connors
newspaper in 1842.
THE NATIONAL CONVENTION
To return to the earlier sequence of events, the National Convention that had been suggested earlier became a fact, which met for the first time in London on February 4, 1839. This became known as the ’The General convention of the Industrial Classes of Great Britain’ and 56 delegates were elected, of whom 53 took up their mandate, with Lovett elected secretary.
In the first week £700 was collected, prominent orators were appointed as "missionaries" to the provinces to enlighten the masses, and a committee was appointed to negotiate with members of Parliament. On February 5,1839, one day after the setting up of the convention, Parliament opened with a Queens speech that gave clear hints of a threatening nature.The Convention’s reply indicated that armed resistance might be resorted to if need be. From now on, despite being down on numbers because of the "missionaries" and committtees, the convention sat without interruption until September 14, 1839. During this time only two things were really discussed: Free trade and "ulterior measures".
The discussions on ’free trade’ were effectively to define the Convention’s attitude towards the Anti-corn law league. This group was uncompromisingly gradualist, insisting that it was important to repeal the corn laws first and then fight for enfranchisement. Such ideas, issuing from an organization which was obviously being funded with much largesse by industrialists, was guaranteed not to be very inspiring to workers; it was not surprising that a motion recommending total opposition to and depreciation of the Anti-corn law league by O’Brien was carried unanimously. The issues were being debated everywhere and it was evident to many, that cheap corn would seem to indicate a future drop in wages. Anti-corn law meetings almost inevitably had Chartists there to heckle, and demand support of the Charter, sometimes resulting in open collisions.
The issue of "ulterior measures" was the consideration of what to do if the Charter was not accepted by Parliament. The differences consisted of a wide spectrum of emphases on varying degees of peaceful, constitutional means through to physical force and outright insurrection. These differences fell broadly into what were known as the ’physical force’ and ’moral force’ parties.
The degrees of inclination towards physical or moral force related undoubtedly to the differing degrees of prosperity to be found in different areas. Mathers comments: "Chartism in Scotland leaned definitely towards moral force as there was an expansive boom in the metallurgical industries and also the poor law did not apply in Scotland. Also, the dirty and underpaid jobs were manned by Irish immigrants whose separate identity more often than not kept them out of Chartism altogether. Conversely, the Bradford district of West Riding where thousands of Woolcombers were being thrown out of work by the competition of combing machinery,was perhaps the most outstanding area of physical force in England in the spring of 1848"(Historical Association pamphlet)
To begin with, the whole issue of "ulterior measures" was seen by the Convention as premature, but because of the insistance on its importance from the representatives of "physical force", it was eventually agreed to set up a committee to consider the issue. This despite its seeming reasonableness, caused a polarization at both extremes. Harney, heavily influenced by the events of the French revolution, continued to advocate insurrection in any event. He was backed by Major Beniowski, a refugee from the Polish insurrection of 1831, who contributed articles to the ’London Democrat’ on the worthlessness of the Convention, as well as on the Polish revolution, revolutionary tactics and strategy. The ’moral force’ contingent and the right saw these activities as prejudicing the ’moral’ credibility of the convention and a vote of censure was passed on Harney. However, this didn’t prevent a meeting being called at the ’Crown and Anchor’ at which Frost, O’Connor,Harney and others called on the masses to prepare for the coming fight. Meanwhile, the government was preparing the armed forces and police to combat the growing tide of unrest. These ’preparations’ eventually resulting in a call to arms from the Chartist leaders. The convention now moved to Birmingham, with the delegates arriving to a massive reception of workers on may 13. The Government sent in infantry and artillery ready for action. On the following day, the report of the committee of ulterior measures was published as a manifesto.
It was observed: "the mask of CONSTITUTIONAL LIBERTY is thrown for ever aside and the form of despotism stands hideously before us: for us it can no longer be disguised, THE GOVERNMENT OF ENGLAND IS A DESPOTISM AND HER INDUSTRIOUS MILLIONS, SLAVES.(.....) we have patiently yielded one infringement after the another till the last vestige of RIGHT has been lost in the MYSTICISM of legislation and the armed force of the country transfered to soldiers and policemen". It was further proposed that a series of mass meetings be held to gauge the will of the people, where a number of proposals would be submitted as possible means to implement the Charter.
This list of proposals submitted, whether the people would be prepared at the request of the convention to: cause a run on the banks by converting money to gold; Support a rent and tax strike; a general strike; support only Chartist traders and whether they would arm to defend their rights. When the Convention reopened on July 1st, many of these measures were approved, along with an expressed need for a more efficient organization. On the left, Taylor arranged for a future insurrection by burying five brass cannons (hopefully some other comrades lent a hand!) There now followed more arrests and riots in Birmingham, eventually reaching a pitch where police were compelled to seek sanctuary in peoples houses – and in the stonemason’s union lodge! Still more riots ensued, resulting in the arrest of many Chartists.
On July 8 the convention resolved to return to London for the 2nd reading of the petition on July 12 in the House of Commons. The petition was defeated by 235 votes to 46, with all the radicals and freetraders voting for it.
Bolstered with the news of a strike of 25,000 miners caused by the arrest of leading Chartists, and having witnessed the power of the masses in Birmingham after suffering dissapointment with Parliament once again, the preparations went ahead for a general strike. The Convention was seen as now potentially taking on a new role as a kind of central bureau, for most of the delegates shared the general conviction that a general strike would speedily lead to a general insurrection and civil war.
On July 16, a motion was carried, fixing the date for the strike, or ’sacred month,’ on August 12. However, the subject was not off the agenda, and for days afterwards doubts were shared until eventually a motion of O’Brien’s was carried making the keeping of the general strike voluntary. The shopkeepers of England were nevertheless scared. They appealed for help to the government, which stepped up repressive measures until in August there were 130 Chartist leaders arrested. August 12 was to be dissapointing. There were mass meetings in all the towns, with some rioting and disturbances, but little support from the trade-unions and no possibility of a unified general strike.
On August 26 the convention assembled, but with no immediate aim in
view following the failure of the petition and general strike. On September
6, the convention dissolved. One of the last acts of the convention was
a drafting of a "declaration of the constitutional rights of Britons" which
was avidly read by most literate Chartists and was to be quoted on many
occasions in defense trials.
THE NEWPORT REBELLION
In October 8, 1838, Lord John Russell delivered a speech at a banquet in Liverpool in which he actually backed the Chartist agitation saying: "I think the people have a right to meet. If they have no grievances, common sense would speedily come to the rescue and put an end to these meetings. It is not from the unchecked declaration of public opinions that governments have anything to fear. There was fear when men were driven by force to secret combinations. There was fear, there was danger, and not in free discussion".
This was the government’s policy and it was just such a combination had been formed by the left after the failure of the petition and the massive spate of arrests in the summer of 1839. This group formed around a fraction of five delegates from the adjourned convention and resolved to emancipate the working classes by means of an insurrection. A confession of one of the leaders, Zephaniah Williams, reveals a plan to overthrow the government and set up a republic. The secret conspiracy was organized in a cell system, after the manner of the United Irishmen and to this day little is still known about it. However it is known that there was a national conference at Heckmondwick, and lesser organizing conferences elsewhere. The country covered by Chartist agitation was divided into districts, in which the Chartists were classed in groups of 10, 100, and 1000 men with leaders and captains. With various areas seen by them as ripe for revolt, eventually the matter was decided by force of circumstances and a revolt broke out in Newport, Wales.
The miners and ironworkers of South Wales had been involved in a good many struggles since 1829 when the miners wages were cut. In 1831 the miners and ironworkers of Merthyr Tydfil wrecked the court of requests where the accounts of the debts they owed to the employers shops were kept, and they had been confronted and beaten back by soldiers with twenty-one workers killed and about seventy wounded. The employers went on to sack anyone who belonged to a trade union, and the workers retaliated by forming a secret group called the ’Scotch cattle’ to beat up the managers of truck shops and workers who under- cut their wages. By 1839 the ’Scotch cattle’ were Chartists.
The arrest and bad treatment of Henry Vincent in jail – the Chartist leader with the most influence in the West country and Wales – the prohibition of weapons, the forbidding of assemblies and harsh prison sentences on earlier rioters combined to create a mood of extreme militancy and the demand to set Vincent free by force. Instrumental in all this was John Frost, a draper, mayor, magistrate and justice of the peace who had been involved in the advocating of radical doctrines since 1817 and converted to Chartism on the arrival of Henry Vincent in Wales in 1838.
At the meeting at Heckmondwick, the forty delegates were informed of the intention of the Welsh to rise, and it was decided to aid the rebellion with an outbreak in the North. O’Connor was asked to lead the rebellion and agreed to do so. From this point, historians differ as to what occurred. It is evident that O’Connor having manoeuvred himself into this position of advantage, did everything in his power to stop the rebellion. He told the Welsh that the Northerners were not ready to rise and that the rising was a government plot, and he told the Northerners that the Welsh were not ready to rise. The Yorkshire men, however, decided to rise anyway, at which point their leader, Peter Bussey, was suddenly ’taken ill’. His little boy was to blurt out the truth to a customer in his father’s beer shop a few days later. "Ah’ said the boy, ’you could not find my father the other day, but I knew where he was all the time; he was up in the cock-loft behind the flour sacks". On account of this, Bussey had to wind up his affairs and depart post-haste for America. Meanwhile, O’Connor thought it a timely opportunity to visit Ireland and did not return until the outbreak was over. Why? As stated by himself ’to persuade the electors of a single county – the county of Cork – to register their votes, so as to be prepared to return a Liberal member at an ensuing election, whenever that might occur’ (R.C. Gammage, ’History of the Chartist Movement’). A far flung excuse indeed!
The Welsh then stood alone. Towards the end of October it was resolved by a committee including Frost to march on Newport with a column of a thousand men and release Vincent from prison. These men were mobilized, armed with muskets, pikes and clubs, then they marched on Newport on November 4. On arrival in Newport, and after minor skirmishes with the police, the columns advanced to the Westgate Hotel to confront the magistrate and demand the release of prisoners. This they did, unaware that the authorities were well prepared and that soldiers had been positioned in the hotel. The soldiers greeted the demands with musket shot and twenty Chartists lay dead with about fifty wounded. The insurrection was over. Numerous arrests followed with several of the leaders sentenced to death or transportation. Later in 1856 a complete amnesty was to be granted.
A strange post-script was that a meeting was arranged in London to discuss ways of rescuing Frost. O’Connor was elected to the committee at this meeting, but apparently never once attended any of it’s meetings. However he was at a secret meeting where it was decided to fix a date for an insurrection on 12th January if Frost was not released. This decision was approved and on that date risings took place at Sheffield and other places, which were denounced in O’Connor’s paper, The Northern Star.
Such behaviour would not have surprised Marx, who summed O’Connor up thus: "He is essentially conservative and feels a highly determined hatred not only for industrial progress but also for revolution. His ideas are patriarchal and petty bourgeois through and through. He unites in one person an inexhaustable number of contradictions, which find their fulfilment and harmony in a certain blunt ’common sense’, and which enable him year in year out to write his interminable weekly letters in the ’Northern star’, each successive letter in open conflict with the previous one.(....) But such people serve a useful purpose, in that the many ingrained prejudices which they embody and propogate dissapear with them – with the result that the movement, once it has rid itself of these people, can free itself from these prejudices once and for all". (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, May-Oct. 1850)
By June 1840, 380 Chartist leaders in England and 62 in Wales had been
arrested and either acquitted or sentenced. Out of the 442 arrested 425
belonged to the working class; textile operatives, metal workers and miners
forming the main contingent. The speeches for the defence relied for the
most part on an appeal to nature, whilst descriptions of the sufferings
experienced by some of those accused gave an eloquent defense, on some
occasions moving the audience to tears. The costs incurred in all these
trials put a great strain on the financial resources of chartists and further,
the Chartist press suffered from persecutions with eight publications closing
down by 1840.
THE NATIONAL CHARTER ASSOCIATION
The experiences of the early years of Chartism had impressed the Chartist leaders that the problem to be faced was that of organization. A correspondence was entered into, including jailed Chartists, followed by a conference on July 20, 1840 in Manchester, which was to give birth to the National Chartist Association.
The object of the N.C.A. was the radical reform of the House of Commons and it contained all the previous demands of the Charter, but emphasized a form of organization which would be built up in tiers from the localities, culminating in an executive of seven members who would be paid for their work. Thus emerged a formal national organization despite the Corresponding Societies Act of 1799 which made it illegal for societies to have branches. The way the act was circumvented was by having local members appointing members to a general council, which in its turn, then appointed local officials and delegates. An address was issued accompanying the formation of the organization calling on all Chartists to join, and which emphasized its constitutional nature, its disaproval of conspiratorial organization and speaking for the diffusion of knowledge and temperance.
Many views emerged from the conference, and amidst the calls for temperance etc, Dr.M’Douall – who had been involved in the Newport insurrection – called for organization in the trade unions so that they would eventually form the basis of agitation. Up to the end of 1842, there were to be many such organizations, such as the Chartist Association of Hatters, of Joiners, of Stockingers etc, and his line of thinking was to pay off dramatically with the general strike or ’turn out’ of 1842.
In 1841, Sir Robert Peel, making the most of the discontent in the country, forced a vote of censure on the Whig (liberal) government in order to force them to resign. This move was successful after which electoral policy became the main topic of debate amongst Chartists, and a host of different tactics and views emerged. The Northern Star recommended in one article "wherever by splitting with the Tories you can return your man, do so. Wherever by splitting with the Whigs you can return your man, do so". On the same day though, in another article it recommended total lack of support for the Whigs. Extraordinary manoeuvrings and rationalizations occurred. One faction backed the liberals as they seemed to have more radical ideas. Other factions felt it better to back the Tories, as an open enemy was better than a false friend.
There was also another line of thought represented by O’Brien who believed in using the elections for agitation purposes. Chartist candidates could appear at the hustings and deliver speeches, and become unofficially elected candidates through a show of hands. These people could form the basis of the National council of the unrepresented people until the dissolution of Parliament. O’Brien believed that this was far better than getting lured onto the terrain of Bourgeois intrigue, and was different in that it became quite clear that the Chartist candidates were for the workers. His view was violently opposed to the most influential line of thought, represented by O’Connor who could wield his control through the Northern Star, with its nationwide network of correspondents, and who almost as a point of principle, defended the tactics of manoeuvring amongst the established parliamentary parties.
The liberals were defeated in the elections and this was largely popular
with the working classes. The spin-off from this was the N.C.A. organizing
another petition to present to parliament for the People’s Charter. This
Charter, whilst similar to the first contained a number of other grievances
included a demand for the repeal of the legislative union between Great
Britain and Ireland. A Convention was formed, as in 1839, to present a
petition to Parliament with 3,317,752 signatures, (as opposed to 1,280,000
in 1839), again the bill was defeated, with Macaulay, an M.P. explaining
’that universal suffrage would be fatal to all purposes for which government
exists.... and was utterly incompatible with the very existence of civilization’.
But soon things were to be taken out of the domain of electoral intrigue
and petitions back into the more persuasive world of starvation and poverty.
The next phase of Chartism was to consist of the Chartists involvement
in a massive strike movement.
THE GENERAL STRIKE OF 1842
Towards the end of July, 1842, the workers of Ashton, Stalybridge, and Hyde following a number of wage reductions, called meetings in order to discuss their situation. The scene had been set by a series of miners strikes in Staffordshire in late July, which had brought the organized unemployed into the arena of political action. At a meeting of unemployed miners in Hanley a resolution was read, "that it is the opinion of the meeting that nothing but the People’s Charter can give us the power to have ’a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work’". Soon, in response to various cotton barons giving notice of massive wage reductions, the cotton workers were to come out as well. A meeting was announced in late July with aims echoing the unemployed colliers, and was ’for the purpose of taking into consideration the propriety of stopping work until we obtain a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work... by order of the committee of factory operatives.’ A local Chartist and member of the N.C.A. executive was chairman of this meeting, who spoke for pursuing the aims of the charter whilst one Richard Pilling, a local Chartist leader and the man who was to lead the strike through many key phases of it’s development, moved the resolution to strike if the factory bosses should institute the wage cuts. More meetings took place and isolated strike actions causing some of the bosses to retract on the wage reductions.
However, at one factory, Bayley’s mills, the notice of a 25% wage cut was not to expire until the 5th August. On the 4th, the weavers and others employed by Bayleys went on strike. The next day, a workers committee met up with the management who told them that if they didn’t like the wage cut ’they better play awhile – which would perhaps alter their resolution’. This retort was soon on everyones lips as an example of capitalist attitudes to wage demands. At a meeting two days later, on the 7th August came the first announcement of a general strike. "Tomorrow a meeting will take place at Stalybridge at 5 o’clock in the morning, when we will proceed from factory to factory, and all hands that will not willingly come out we will turn them out. And, friends, when we are out we will remain out until the Charter, which is the only guarantee you have for your wages, becomes the law of the land". The bosses of Bayley’s mills scurried back to say they wouldn’t institute the wage cuts after all, but because of rumours that they were proposing a month long lock-out anyway, the general strike went ahead. By now the demands were demands of the working class as a whole.
On the 8th, the scheduled meeting took place and soon a huge procession formed, later splitting into two to cover more ground, which marched from factory to factory stopping work everywhere and initiating mass meetings along the way. On one of the banners was written the now famous injunction: «The men of Stalybridge will follow wherever danger points the way – They that perish by the sword are better than they that perish by hunger».
On August 9, having passed through Ashton and Oldham, the processions converged on Manchester. On entering the city, the procession broke into smaller groups that covered the Manchester factories publicising the strike and urging others to join, which most invariably did with little intimidation. Here they were confronted with troops and police and several pitch battles ensued. By the second day of the turn-out in Manchester everyone had downed tools, and soon the entire area around Manchester was turned out including railway men, mechanics, workers in manufacturing – everybody.
So was this a case of a ’spontaneous’ reaction by the working class? A knee-jerk reaction? Almost all the bourgeois historians who have commented on the general strike of 1842 would have us believe so, but this is definately not the case. The initial ’turn-out’ was the subject of considerable deliberation, mass meetings, and a response to a series of attacks on the working class that had acclerated to the point where there was no option but to take drastic action, and when the strike movement reached Manchester, the organization of the strike was to take on an intensely organized form at local and central level, unifying strikers and the various trades through the means of a trades conference in close contact with the Chartist party; In other words precisely in the way that it seems most likely the revolutionary struggle will develop in the future – workers committees unified across trades in contact with the party of the working class.
The background to the form of working class organization that was to emerge had already been set by the smiths of Manchester and South Lancashire, who, after the collapse of Owen’s Grand National Consolidated union, had continued the struggle to create a union that united five of the trades of mechanism – millwrights, engineers, iron moulders, smiths and mechanics. Prime mover in this attempt were the workers of Sharp, Roberts and Co. of Manchester who were at the time producing the most advanced machines in the world who were badly hit by the British protectionism that forbade the export of textile and some other machinery. These attempts produced a paper called the Trades Journal and an organization called the United Trades Association. At one of the many meetings involved in these moves, Alexander Hutchinson, an Owenite and Chartist Engineer and prime mover of these attempts at organisation declared: "It is said that union is strength; and if one single society can do good, five can effect much more. You are all engaged upon the same work – often in the same workshops; your interests are all inseparably the same. Yet when the oppression comes, your employers do not reduce you all at the one time; it better serves their end to do so gradually and when one or two branches have been conquered, the rest become an easy prey. Instead of one shop or place having little disturbances, let it be general and by such a practice we shall avoid that ill feeling and contention I have mentioned".
These attempts were not immediately successful – but important enough to warrant the interest of the local police, military and the Home Office – and out of their remnants would emerge the Amalgamated Society of Engineers ten years later to cover the engineers of Great Britain and Ireland.
From the first days that the strike movement reached Manchester, there were discernible efforts to establish a central strike leadership. To start with two main trades bodies met to discuss what to do – the striking power loom weavers ’and various trades’, and the united mechanics around Hutchinson and workers from Sharp’s. Various resolutions were passed, virtually unanimously in favour of the strike and The Charter, and a resolution "that a general meeting of delegates from all the various trades of Manchester be held on Monday afternoon in the Carpenters’ Hall...". Over the next two days there were meetings big and small to elect delegates for the main conference on The 15th May.
This conference was known as the Great Delegates Trades Conference and it met under the chairmanship of Alexander Hutchinson. At this conference it was decided: "that the delegates in public meeting assembled, do recommend to the various constituencies we represent, to adopt all legal means to carry into effect the People’s charter; and further we recommend that delegates be sent throught he whole country to endeavour to obtain the co-operation of the middle and working classes in carrying out the resolution of ceasing labour until the Charter becomes the law of the land".
Along with this, a motion was passed emphasizing keeping the wages question to the fore and one which, after censuring of the employers declared, "We are also of the opinion that until class legislation is entirely destroyed and the principle of united labour established, the labourer will not be in a position to enjoy the full fruits of his labours". The following day, a poster was printed in bold red type declaring amongst other things "to persevere in our exertions until we achieve the complete emancipation of our brethren of the working classes from the thraldom of monopoly and class legislation by the legal establishment of the people’s Charter. The trades of Britain carried the Reform Bill. The trades of Great Britain shall carry the Charter".
The following morning the conference met again and elected an executive committee of twelve, plus the chairman. They called for local committees to organize and lead the strike, and to negotiate with the middle-class and shopkeepers, keeping them sweet with bills of credit, etc. This latter move of diplomacy towards the shopkeepers was not made gratuitously as meetings of shopkeepers had come out behind the workers. But they had also ’tried to pour oil on troubled waters’, vacillating characteristically by sending delegations to meet the employers, after one such meeting they declared that they would withdraw their support of the workers ’should the question turn to politics’.
The governent were not slow to see the significance of these conferences. On August 15th, Sir James Graham, Secretary of State for the Home Department wrote to Major-General Sir William Warre, Army Commander for the North, "It is quite clear that these delegates are the directing body; they form the link between the trade unions and the chartists, and a blow struck at this confederacy goes to the heart of the evil and cuts off it’s ramifications". Four days later five of the principal delegates had been arrested, and the next day, Alexander Hutchinson and the principal officers of the conference were behind bars.
Meanwhile, the strike spread to Lancashire, Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, the Potteries, and extended to Wales and Scotland, where the miners came out. In Middleton silk mills, cotton mills, dye houses and printworks were won to the turn-out. By the 12th, in Rochdale "the whole of the hands in the cotton and woollen mills and operatives of every description for miles around had ceased to work and business was at a complete standstill" and this city became an organizing centre for marches and processions and the extension of the turn-out.
By this point, the government was mustering it’s forces, at Ashton the workers response was to take over the railway station to prevent troop movements as a result of which the local authorities swore in some hundreds of special constables. Troops and police were moved hither and thither opening fire on several occasions with several workers killed and wounded in Preston on the 12th. But parts of the states repressive apparatus started to break down and many workers were hauled up before the magistrates for refusing to take oaths of allegiance to the crown as special constables, and those who were recruited were known to be notoriously unreliable. Furthermore, contingents involving war veterans, namely the Chelsea pensioners, were reported – after less than enthuisiastic ’actions’ – by one of their organizers as ’by no means to be relied upon, in such an emergency as the present’. (Jenkins, ’the General Strike of 1842’, Lawrence and Wishart, p.199).
Another telltale sign of working class struggles is the breaking down of artificial polarities. 1842 was no exception, with a large number of women drawn into the strike, who fought with an equal tenacity and courage as the men, arming themselves in some instances with stones bludgeons and cutlasses (stuff hatpins!) After all, it was women and children who made up the bulk of the original industrial proletariat. At one factory where mass picketing was taking place the Guardian noted "the most active assailants being women, with their aprons full of stones’. And this was not an isolated incident. In another article, in early September, the same paper noted ’In the course of the afternoon, a meeting of female operatives was held at Ashton, when a resolution was passed to the effect that they neither go to work themselves, nor allow their husbands to do so, until they get their price as agreed upon" (Jenkins, p.217).
In some places factories were smashed to pieces and workers threatened with violence if they didn’t stop work, in others the strikers raked out the fires from beneath the boilers and knocked out their plugs. (from this one feature, bourgeois historians have contrived to sum up the whole of this period with one of their ’pithy’ labels – to them this period was; ’the plug plots’). Everywhere ’committees of factory operatives’ and strike committees sprung up, in some case issuing permits to manufacturers to finish off half finished work or stock that risked being damaged. Everywhere ’ordinary’ people showed their capacity for organisation and disciplined class action and it was notable in this respect, that plundering nowhere took place. The working class remained in control of the richest centre of the cotton industry for a whole week despite occasional conflicts with soldiers, and the workers of Manchester were to remain out for a full seven weeks.
What of ’official’ Chartist involvement? A meeting in Manchester of the National Charter Association had been scheduled in March to discuss the dissent in the movement and to take part in a commemoration of the Peterloo massacre and had been set then for August 16th, the day after the grand delegates conference. This meeting had been proposed by none other than Alexander Hutchinson, and if this piece of information is combined with the fact that Dr. Peter Mcdouall – the chief proponent of union organization in the unions – had his stronghold in Lancashire and Cheshire and was involved in the Newport rising, it is tempting to think that the general strike had been hatched many months earlier. Indeed when the army arrested the delegates at the trades conference, papers were seized which disclosed an extensive conspiracy going back as far as July 1841 (Mick Jenkins, p.194). The presence of the National Charter Association conference transformed the strike by enabling it’s organization, which was far more national in scope, to be used in extending the strike and those Chartsits who favoured industrial action like Mcdouall, took the lead. At the conference it was resolved that "all officers of the association are called upon to aid and assist the peaceful extension of the strike". Thomas Cooper, present at the conference described the delegates as fully believing that ’the time had come for trying, successfully, to paralyse the government’.
Mick Jenkins in his excellent book on the strike of ’42, from which many of the keys facts pertaining to the strike are drawn, comments: "From the moment of this proclamation the strike became fully national. Across the country all units of the National Charter Association became pledged to organize support. Areas that had previously remained quiet, the Merthyr valley in south Wales, certain parts of Scotland, the Dorset and Somerset textile industry, now joined the strike" (Jenkins. op.cit.).
O’Connor, acknowledged head of the movement by virtually all Chartists by this time, having arrived at a position where strong leadership could have carried the day, and having said on numerous occasions that he was ready to conquer or to die, once again bowed out at the crucial juncture as he had done at the time of the Newport rising. His reasoning was that the entire strike movement had been engineered by the manufacturers in the interests of the Anti-Corn Law League, and whilst no doubt some employers wanted to close their factories because of the crisis, it was hardly relevant given the scale of the rebellion, but even several of the ’physical force’ Chartists hung back on this occasion. Slowly the insurrection became a demand neither for higher wages, a demand for the Charter, or a workers insurrection. Slowly, oppressed by hunger, workers returned in dribs and drabs to the factories until the end of September, they were abandoned by both Chartist and union leaders, with O’Connor going to London to elaborate plans for agrarian reform and M’Douall taking to flight against the possibility of arrest.
There followed a wave of an estimated 1,500 arrests of trade unionists and Chartists aged from 15 years old to an old man of 101! To begin with sentences were severe, but as the months went by, they became less so as the likelihood of an insurrection subsided.
Jenkins gives four reasons why the insurrection failed: "The success of Graham’s unifying of the ruling class forces into an effective machine under his and his nominees’ leadership; the arrest of the turn-out leaders; the disbanding of the trades conference; and the ending and disbanding of the Chartist conference,. [these] were bound to have an profound effect on the turn-out and in great measure determined its outcome. Although the two main demands – for wage increases and for the Charter – remained the main demands, nevertheless it was inevitable with the failure to maintain a central leadership that the issue of wages would begin to dominate".
So what was the balance sheet? In the domain of wages, concrete gains were undoubtedly made. In most instances the cuts to wages were not enforced and in some areas even wage increase occurred. Regulations were pushed through in 1844 and 1847 limiting the working day in factories and in 1843, a law was passed that enabled machinery to be exported bringing about a boom in engineering. But the bid for working class power failed and the Charter failed ’to become the law of the land’. Engels, who moved to Manchester only two months after, could see why the fight for universal suffrage was so important and why the English ruling classes would not grant it for another seventy-six years. Writing from London in November 1842 he wrote: "... the middle class will never renounce its occupation of the House of Commons by agreeing to universal suffrage since it would immediately be outvoted by a large number of the unpropertied as an inevitable consequence of giving way on this point... In England’s present condition, ’legal process’ and universal suffrage would inevitably result in revolution". (Marx and Engels collected works, II, p.368-9). Twelve months later he wrote,"Democracy true enough is only a transitional stage, though not towards a new improved aristocracy, but towards real human freedom". (ibid,III, p.466) (our emphasis).
The fact that the perception of both Marx – which we will demonstrate later on – and Engels, was that universal suffage at the time was tantamount to revolution, is an instructive corrective to any notions of superiority we might feel as revolutionaries of the present day who, in England’s present condition reject parliament. But when we look back to this period, we should bear in mind how little adapted parliament was to the needs of the rising bourgeoisie; bear in mind that only fifty years before it was still in a struggle against the attempt of George III to restore the power of the monarchy; that it was yet struggling with the landed aristocracy. We can easily speculate how the yet protean, and unformed nature of Parliament might have been transformed by having a majority of representatives of a revolutionary and militant working class!
Once again, the working class was thrown back, in defeat, to the pursuit of reforms, and reconciliation with the middle-classes was back on the agenda, and a conference called by Joseph Sturge of ’the complete suffrage Union’ to that end, was convened in December 1842. All strands of Chartist and radical thought were represented at this conference, but by the end of the conference the frail unity collapsed into it’s various components. First, Sturge and his followers left after his organizations ’Bill of Rights’ had been voted against in favour of the Charter, and voted for their bill at a seperate conference, then Lovett, representing the London artisans, and his followers left. With Lovett gone, there remained from the original 400 delegates, only 37 to discuss a plan of organization to pursue the interests of the Charter. A further convention was proposed which eventually met in September 1843, with O’Connor attempting to form a shadow executive: ’the London council of 13’ which he could control to his own, constantly vacillating ends. He would drop this in favour of his ’land plan’.
During this slightly more prosperous period, Chartism continued its decline with organized membership falling to three or four thousand, whilst the trades turned to trade societies and Co-operative stores. It was a time of bitter infighting and slanging matches between various factions, and suspicion was cast from many quarters on the conduct of the executive of the N.C.A, and O’Connor’s use of the main Chartist organ,the Northern Star to pursue his own personality cult and as a mouthpiece for his wavering and contradictory views. R.C.Gammage, who was active in the Chartist movement at this time commented, "It is by no means a pleasant task to wade through the mass of treachery, falsehood and folly, that engrafted itself on one of the noblest movements that ever engaged the energies of man" (’History of the Chartist Movement’, 1839-1854, reprinted by Merlin press, London, 1976, p.267).
Before moving on to the specifically political events, what of the economic movements lurking behind them? It is sufficient to paraphrase an article that Marx wrote in 1850.
The years of 1843-5 were years of industrial and commercial prosperity
giving rise to a large amount of speculation. This speculation was centred
mainly around railways, giving rise in 1845 to 1,035 bills being put before
parliament for the formation of railway companies, but it also affected
cotton, with the opening up of the Chinese and East-Indian trade, and corn
following the failure of the potatoe crop which hit Ireland worst, but
also England and the continent. By April 1847, a combination of overproduction
and bad harvests resulted in the collapse of all three and a credit crisis.
Bankruptcies, unheralded in the history of commerce hit old and new firms
alike, spreading from merchant houses to private bankers and joint stock
companies. "The panic which broke out in Paris after february, and swept
across the whole continent together with the revolution was very similar
in its course to the London panic of April 1847. Credit disappeared suddenly
and business transactions came to a standstill; in Paris, Brussels and
Amsterdam everyone hurried to the bank to change notes for gold (....)
At any rate, it is certain that the commercial crisis contributed far more
to the revolution of 1848 than the revolution to the commercial crisis.
Between March and May England enjoyed direct advantages from the revolution
which supplied her with a great deal of continental capital. From this
moment on the crisis can be regarded as over in England: There was an improvement
in all branches of business and the new industrial cycle began with a decided
movement towards prosperity. How little the continental revolution held
back the industrial and commercial boom in England can be seen from the
fact that the amount of cotton manufactured here rose from 475 million
lb. in 1847 to 713 million lb.in 1848". (Marx, Neue Rheinische Zeitung:
May-October 1850) In these years, harvests were good, and development in
the railways slowed to a normal level of development.
O’CONNOR’S LANDPLAN: THE LAST GASP OF UTOPIANISM
At the Birmingham conference of September ’43, O’Connor introduced a scheme for placing the working class on the land, "with a view to their social redemption,(....); and it was one of the best schemes for dividing and breaking up the Chartist movement that could possibly have been invented by the genius or folly of man" Gammage, op.cit. p.248). This scheme was avowedly non-Socialist, and can be summed up in O’Connors own words "peasant proprietorship is the best basis of society". This scheme was to dominate the working class movement for the next 7 or 8 years, indeed, to begin with, the name ’National Charter Association’ was taken over lock, stock and barrel by O’Connor in pursuance of his utopian dream, until on legal advice, the political side of the N.C.A. became separated. Eventually O’Connor founded the Chartist Co-operative Land Society in 1845.
The scheme was, baldly put, property speculation involving a long string of remortgages on country properties. Money was raised through initial subscriptions by Chartists who put up their money in the form of shares. These shareholders would then be balloted to obtain small holdings. Tantalized by the celebrated imagery of the country cottage and an idyllic peasant existence away from the cares of the squalid cholera ridden towns, 70,000 subscribers joined the scheme, forming 300 branches of the Land Society.
Thousands of Chartists from towns would be settled in the countryside as smallholders where they would earn their living as farmers. According to O’Connor, this would reduce competition for jobs in industry where wages would go up, and unemployment would be reduced. The first estate was bought in 1846 at Heronsgate near Watford, and – shades of the modern organic movement – spade culture would be emphasized as better than using those nasty mechanical ploughs. Later in the year a ballot was held to decide on the first 35 settlers. The settlement was modestly referred to as O’Connorville lest it’s creator be forgotten. Soon three other estates were purchased and 250 shareholders were lucky in the lottery. The last of the estates, Charterville, was mortgaged by O’Connor to raise money for other estates and when he could no longer meet the interest payments, all but 2 of the tenants were evicted by the money lenders in 1850.
In 1851 the National Land Company was ended by act of Parliament, by which time three-quarters of the original settlers had left anyway and subscribers had dwindled to nothing. Thus ended the land-plan six years after the last of Robert Owen’s schemes, Harmony Hall, perished in 1845 through mismanagement and lack of funds. The working class could no longer yearn for smallholdings in the countryside, and machinery was obviously now here to stay. Agriculture was becoming more and more mechanised and concentrated into larger holdings, and fewer and fewer country squires were left to preside over country festivals and keep the notions of a patriarchal past alive. For the working class there was no going back – only forward.
But The Land Scheme was by no means without it’s critics. O’Brien, through his paper the national reformer, ridiculed the Land-plan, maintaining that it bypassed the issue of taking political power on which all else hung. ’The reformer’ counterposed smallholdings to the Nationalization of the land, and the gold standard to "the quarter or bushel of wheat, to be henceforward the recognised standard of value – its average price (measured by labour) to be the unit of account", (National Reformer, Jan.16,1847). Similarly he backed equitable exchange and co-operative stores. One can see in these theoretical stirrings, the attempt to unmask capitalist economy by showing the basic source of wealth as labour. But as the working class movement would discover, a co-operative capitalist or even a national capitalist can exploit as well as sole proprietor or a joint-stock company. It would not be until Marx and Engels had unmasked the mysteries of accumulation that the working class movement would be able to realize it’s mission – to destroy market economy on an International scale, and with it, labour as a commodity.
In the next article, we will examine the last phase of Chartism and how, out of it’s distintegration, its left wing started looking towards internationalism, and connected up with and formed early Communist organizations, but let us leave to Marx the job of summing up the difficult, confusing but ultimately hopeful and optimistic period: "The continentals are prone to underrate the importance and meaning of the English ’Charter’. They overlook the fact that over two-thirds of French society are peasants and one-third townspeople, while in England more than two-thirds live in the towns and less than one-third in the countryside. In England the results of universal suffrage must be in the same ’inverse’ proportion to its results in France as town and country are in the two empires. This explains the diametrically opposite character which the demand for universal suffage has assumed in France and England. In France it was a demand made by politial ideologues, one that every ’educated’ person could share to a greater or lesser extent, depending on his convictions. In England it forms the broad boundary between aristocracy and bourgeoisie on the one hand and the classes of the people on the other. There it is regarded as a political question and here, as a social one. In England agitation for universal suffrage had gone through a period of historical development before it became the catchword of the masses. In France, it was ’first’ introduced and ’then’ started on its historical path. In France it was the practice of universal suffrage that failed, while in England it was its ideology. In the early decades of this century, universal suffrage of Sir Francis Burdett, Major Cartwright and Cobbet still had an utterly indefinite idealistic character, which made it the pious wish of all sections of the population that did not belong directly to the ruling classes. For the bourgeoisie, it was really no more than an eccentric, generalized expression of what it had attained through the parliamentary reform of 1831. In England the demand for Universal suffrage did not assume its true, specific character even after 1838. Proof: Hume and O’Connell were amongst those who signed the Charter. In 1842 the last illusions were gone. At that time Lovett made a last but futile attempt to formulate universal suffrage as a ’common’ demand of the so-called Radicals and the masses of the people. Since that day there has no longer been any doubt as to the meaning of universal suffrage. Nor as to its name. It is the ’Charter’ of the classes of the people and implies the assumption of political power as a means of meeting their social requirements. That is why universal suffrage, a watchword of universal fraternization in the France of 1848, is taken as a war slogan in England. There the immediate content of the revolution was Universal suffrage; here, the immediate content of Universal Suffrage is the revolution. He who goes over the history of universal suffrage in England will see that it casts off its idealistic character as modern society with its endless contradictions develops here; contradictions born of industrial progress", (Neue Oder-Zeitung, no.261,June 8, 1855).
Marxism from its very outset took an interest in and vigorously opposed the legal structures of bourgeois class society. The legal system protects, defends and justifies the material relationships of society, along with the exploitation and suppression of the lower orders – in this case the proletariat, the working class. It is sufficient to recall that Marx studied Jurisprudence (legal theory) at University and Lenin undertook law with a view to practice as a lawyer.
Bourgeois society quickly recognized in Marxism its potential nemesis, and so began the various campaigns of denigration, which continue in various forms right up to today. Faced with the First International, the Paris Commune and the Russian October revolution bourgeois hysteria reached profound levels. But with the counter-revolution finding firm ground from the mid 1920s onwards, and acquiring allies among those who claim for themselves a vestige of Marxism, they could afford to relax a little. It became time to undermine Marxism by “making it safe”, by producing a sanitized form of university Marxism supervised by echelons of salaried academics who strive to make a career out of “specializing” in this growth industry. The Jurisprudence we are examining is that of the Anglo-Saxon legal system, which is different in nature to that of the rest of Europe.
The attacks upon Jurisprudence by Marxism resulted in bourgeois academics seeking to incorporate Marxism within Jurisprudence itself (which is about as practical as incorporating anti-matter within matter). This produced what is called “Marxist Jurisprudence”, which we can justifiably call a contradiction in terms, and has become a part of the subject taught in Universities under the general term Jurisprudence, within the overall scope of Legal Studies.
Incorporating Marxism as “Marxist Jurisprudence” creates glaringly obvious difficulties that the academics cannot avoid. “Marxist theory in one way fits rather awkwardly into the corpus of jurisprudence because the very idea of legal theory is to a significant extent alien to Marxist thought”. Well at least the problem has been spotted, but the incompatibility between Marxism and Jurisprudence has been reduced from totally alien to that of being to “a significant extent alien”. Conjurers and cardsharps have nothing on these guys!
Having stated that there is contradiction between the two systems the work is then to show that Marxism isn’t so much as wrong, but that it is rather impractical, and won’t work anyway. This conclusion will come as an immense relief to the bulk of academia – they don’t want hordes of proletarians storming centres of power, and even less the hallowed corridors of universities.
The way the subject is approached is that a few quotations of Marx and Engels are provided, later on old Engels advances forward the notion of the ’withering’ away of the state and as the practical experience has led to the contrary so the attack is concentrated against Engels. First there is the Russian Revolution (the works of Pashukanis are usually referred to), then the Chinese Revolution – which leads to caustic comments about no diminishing, never mind withering away, of the state.
To demonstrate that old Engels had obviously lost the plot later “Marxists”
such as Karl Renner, who argues that there can be a stability of legal
forms despite economic contradictions, are ushered forward in order show
how impractical Classical Marxism is. Very recently Gramsci has been added
to the list of practical and “flexible” fellows, who will provide the continuing
role for Jurists (the exponents of Jurisprudence) no matter which way the
economy might develop.
Structure and Superstructure
Marx dealt with his study and critique of jurisprudence in his preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859) and we would direct the reader to reading this in full (which is not quite five full pages), rather than reproduce it here fully.
In that same preface Marx mentions his study of jurisprudence as part of a course centring on philosophy and history. He then went on to deal with the Hegelian philosophy of Law in 1844, from which he concluded that legal relations and political forms could only be understood by examining the material conditions of life, which can only be sought in political economy. He went on further to state that the totality of relations of production constitute the economic structure of society, its real foundation, from which arises a legal and political superstructure (which broadly speaking is the state and the political organs of the ruling class) and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. This is not viewed in a static way but in a dialectical one, that is over a whole arc of time. We have avoided just quoting Marx, as we wanted to get at the essence of what he was asserting rather than allowing any separation between base and superstructure, which is smuggled in by academic “Marxists”. To further understand this real foundation, the economic structure of society, is what Marx spent the majority of his life studying.
The critique of jurisprudence has been widened out into an assault upon bourgeois society as a whole, and little more needs to be said, from the Marxist side.
As far as Jurisprudence is concerned Classical Marxism (as it is referred
to) needs to be denigrated, while the later more practical “Marxists” are
given an outing. The schema of presentation of this subject goes as follows:
(a) After a basic introduction about the political position of Marx and Engels is given, which includes Hegelian and Marx’s dialectical materialism, Engels’ position of the withering away of the state (as opposed to the to its abolition according to the anarchists) is explained.
(b) E. B. Pashukanis and early Marxism-Leninism – Evgeny Bronislavovich Pashukanis was the leading Soviet jurist and ultimately vice commissar for justice for the period of the New Economic Policy and the first two five year plans. Law was for him a bourgeois phenomena expressing class domination and a temporary weapon in the transition from the old to the new order. He was an implacable opponent of “proletarian law”. As the economy can only be a bourgeois one, based upon commodity exchange relations, once the market has gone the law in all its dimensions will wither away.
(c) A. Ia. Vyshinsky and socialist legality – after the purging of Pashukanis in 1937 (as a ’wrecker’) Vyshinsky, who was the organiser of the Moscow Show Trials and as the Procurator General of the Russian legal system was the leading Stalinist jurist. He scorned the idea of there being no socialist law and trumpeted to the world that only under socialism would the law find its highest development. It was under this new “socialist” law that the final purges took place, and the filling of the Gulags through meeting quotas for the use of slave labour. The Vyshinsky period is greeted by the experts in Jurisprudence as the introduction of a mature system of law. It is also gratifying for them, no doubt, that there will still be a need for law (and lawyers) in a future “socialist” society.
We have placed the arguments in as concise a form as possible. It will
be seen that the Russian Revolution (which includes for them the Stalin
period) is used to contradict what Engels pointed out about the withering
away of the state. The notion is advanced that if anything the state and
its role (in particular its legal system) had grown and been strengthened.
In order to get away with this line of argument the Pashukanis period is
extended backwards to embrace the “War Communism” period, that is 1918
–21. This is actually false and seeks to gloss over the period represented
by Stuchka, the period of the open Dictatorship of the Proletariat before
the retreat of the New Economic Policy.
The Abolition or the Withering Away of the State?
Marxism has always asserted, against the anarchists and others, that the state is not abolished but rather dies away. There is the need for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, which became clear from the example of the Paris Commune of 1871.
But is this same Dictatorship of the Proletariat a state in the ordinary meaning of the word? A state is usually seen as a force standing over society, protecting the interests of a minority and keeping the exploited classes in order. The proletarian state, and better described as proletarian state power, is different in that it is there not merely to defend property relations but seeks to abolish them in due course. It does not protect the interests of minority classes, but is the result of the constitution of the proletariat as the ruling class in society in order to suppress and incorporate all other classes, and so abolish classes altogether. It does this through the abolition of property, by the transformation of production from the needs of the market (for profit) to the meeting of human needs. With this the economy is transformed by being taken over and incorporated into this same state power.
So instead of keeping society in order, in check, proletarian state power has as its objective the abolition of classes, and the creation of a classless society: communism. Therefore a function of this same state power is to render itself superfluous, redundant, and so the notion of the state “withering away”, as expounded by Engels, is an apt one. All the functions of the state will not disappear, those still in existence will be reduced to the mere administration of things. The need for compulsion will have died out as human activity becomes united in striving for the great goal of rational production in order to satisfy human needs. Whatever former state power functions are left are those to maintain the proper functioning of human society (i.e., electrical power regulations, transport coordination, prevention and cure of diseases, major emergencies, etc.).
The proletarian state power (and we have no reservations in using openly
such a concept) has the functions of the previous states in history, bodies
of armed men, compulsion, etc, but it is the most powerful known in history
– and the last one. The scale of involvement is more profound: under feudalism
the state involved landowners and merchants by the thousand, under capitalism
the bourgeoisie is organised by the ten thousand whilst the proletariat,
as a class organised as the ruling class, is involved by the million in
the proletarian state. Previous states stood over society to protect the
property relations, whilst under proletarian rule the means of production
and distribution become part of the proletarian state power function. The
direct control of the means of living, the production and distribution
of the necessities of life (in its broadest sense) will ultimately be more
compelling, more convincing, than the point of the bayonet.
Victory of Communism, Not of Socialist Law
What we have just stated is exactly in line with that of Stuchka, and we have the briefest mention in the Textbook on Jurisprudence, from which we commenced at the beginning of this work. In 1927 Stuchka stated: “Communism means not the victory of socialist law, but the victory of socialism over any law, since with the abolition of classes with their antagonistic interests, law will die out all together”.
Stuchka is mentioned as the mentor of Pashukanis, and it is inferred that the pupil had transcended the master. Nothing more is said. It is left as if there is nothing of any further importance to say. The publication of Pashukanis’ main work, Law & Marxism: A General Theory, does not mention any of this at all. It was left to another work, Pashukanis: Selected Writings on Marxism and Law, to shed a little light on the subject.
“By the late 1920s, as a result of his scholarly reputation, Pashukanis had become the doyen of Soviet Marxist jurisprudence, eclipsing even his juridical mentor Piotr Stuchka”.
Stuchka was a Bolshevik jurist and as one of the early Soviet Commissars
of Justice and the author of Decree No 1 on the Soviet Court, wrote
on the nature of law as a “system of relationships which answers to the
interests of the dominant class and which safeguards that class with organized
force.” In the days following the October Revolution Stuchka was involved
in the physical and political possession of the higher courts in Russia.
Finding that the judges had fled, and concerned members of staff confused
as to what they should do, he quickly said that they should be on the Judge’s
benches, and the former judges should be banished to the antechambers.
It is a classic example of the “world turned upside down”, or to paraphrase
Marx on Hegel placed the right way up! A simplified system of People’s
Courts and Revolutionary Tribunals was set up deal with problems, and they
were light years away from how the old court system operated.
The Legal Structure of the October Revolution
Within one month of the October revolution the hierarchy of the court structure was abolished. A dual system of local people’s courts and revolutionary tribunals developed. The whole system was simplified, and any law not needed for the transition between capitalism and communism was swept away (see Decree Abolishing Classes and Civil Ranks, November 1917). A new type of judge was appointed, guided by “revolutionary consciousness” rather than being trained in the law. This was how the working class, as the dominant class, resolved legal issues.
During 1918-20, the period of Civil War, known as War Communism, with the suppression of the market, formation of the Red Army and Secret Police (Cheka), saw the Bolsheviks begin the process of “re-legalization”. Extreme situations demand extreme measures, and the attacks by the bourgeoisie (both internal and external) led to additional state-type apparatuses which were there to defend the proletarian conquest of power. We use the term state-type because they have certain similarities with bourgeois and pre-bourgeois state organs, and are there to defend the very nature of the state (power) itself, but were never intended to be “permanent” and only to exist temporarily (in the historical sense) until the need for them disappears, as classes disappear.
Now we can see that the work of Pashukanis was not only to refute Stuchka, but also that of the October Revolution itself. Law being anything other than bourgeois leaves the door shut on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, and the ending of property relationships, which was contrary to what was being built in Russia. That law is based upon and arises out of the commodity relations of society is crudely demonstrated by the changed needs of the Five Year Plans having led to Pashukanis altering his works in 1930, and three times publicly recanting, and finally being executed.
Having examined the role and function of “Marxist” Jurisprudence we now turn to how Gramsci is being used against Marx and especially against Engels. But before we deal with Gramsci’s notebooks, we should say something about our relations with Gramsci.
Our party is the continuance of the original Communist Party of Italy
formed in Livorno (Leghorn) in 1921. Gramsci, like many others, took place
in the formation of the C P d’I, which centred on the political positions
defended and fought for even before the First World War, and associated
with the name Bordiga. Amadeo Bordiga became the first General Secretary
of the Communist party of Italy. With the defeat of the revolutionary struggle
on the international level the Moscow leadership were looking for more
pliable leaders in the Communist Parties, those who would follow this or
that disastrous turn, only to be blamed and discarded in due course. The
campaign to denigrate and undermine the Left in the Communist Party of
Italy was prepared by Stalin placing his first such leader on the Communist
party of Italy – and that leader was none other than Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci
has since then become an icon for the Stalinists, euro-communists, Maoists,
assorted Trotskyists, libertarians and now bourgeois jurists.
Gramsci on State and law
And now we can proceed to review the review of Gramsci on state and law, and how he is used against both Marx and Engels.
We now move into an area of great confusion. Even the opening quotation shows an appalling ill-discipline: “If every State tends to create and maintain a certain type of civilisation and of citizen … then the Law will be its instrument for this purpose…”. Besides challenging the use of the word “if”, and replacing it with “as”, this quotation only makes sense when examining existing societies, and not one in which the proletariat has conquered state power – for socialism isn’t about maintaining “civilisation” (slavery and exploitation) nor the continued status of the citizen, a property respecting category if there ever was one.
Next we move on to culture. Apparently culture is the essence of social living, but the class basis for this is not specified. It seems that culture “is organisation, discipline of one’s inner self … the attainment of a higher awareness, with the aid of which one succeeds in understanding one’s own historical value, one’s own function in life, one’s own rights and obligations.” We were almost expecting the Buddha to make an appearance. Here we have the individual, and the individual alone, without class, class struggle, never mind Marxism. It would appear that the individual by the sheer power of the mind could transcend class-ridden society without the need for historical materialism.
Now “praxis” makes an appearance. This is from the Greek (meaning ’action’, practice’). Gramsci used Praxis for the unity of theory and practice in his analysis of culture. It now seems that “the revolutionary”, seeking to understand and change the culture of society, must see theory as arising out of practice and being modified by it. Heady stuff this – real powerful thinking going on here folks. Will keep thinkers going for generations. And so on to a theory of law adequate for communist society that apparently involves participation in the struggle to understand and change the law. Why change law, the down-trodden proletarians may ask, when it would be far simpler to get rid of the system upon which it is based – capitalism?
Praxis now has to analyse law as embodying the wider culture of society in which it flourishes. The role of legal theory, its institutions and practitioners must not be ignored. If the role of bourgeois law is not to be ignored, never mind fought against, then society itself needs to be respected and transformed. And so we have in Gramsci the precursor, the theoretical cutting-edge of Stalin’s and Mao’s block of classes, in which the interests of the working class is subordinated to that of other exploiting classes.
And finally we come to the crux of the prison notebooks – the role of intellectuals! It is asserted that Gramsci’s prison notebooks contain a detailed analysis of the role of intellectuals in the 20th century state. For Gramsci there are two types of intellectuals – traditional and organic. The traditional intellectuals are those based upon the existing one’s in society, e.g. writers, teachers, philosophers, jurists, legislators and lawyers. The organic intellectuals are those allegedly emerging from the struggles of the masses for a new society. The role of the new intellectuals is to absorb the positive features of an existing ideology, since no new state or legal structure can begin from zero. It would appear that Marx and Engels had been misguided in abandoning and fighting bourgeois ideology.
All this is summed up in the concept of hegemony – the domination of new ideas within the state and society. Without a revolution to sweep away all the old garbage (and this is one of the functions of a revolution) we have instead the penetration of society by new ideas that reinforce the “common sense” approach to life, culture and society. And so the role of the intellectual replaces that of revolution in the class struggle.
It is now clear that Gramsci has been of use to bourgeois jurists in
attacking Marxism, and especially against the defence Engels made about
the “withering away” of the state. The political position of Gramsci is
not a proletarian one, for the emancipation of the working class, but its
continued subjection and exploitation in the interests of society “as a
whole” (i.e. in the interests of the exploiting classes of society).
On July 4th, the leftists were out on the streets of Philadelphia to protest the Iraq occupation, and to mourn the abuses incurred against the sacred US constitution by the government it gave rise to. Or rather, by the class interests that gave rise to the Constitution. For the modern tendency of fascism and imperialism is just the capstone to the process which, since the first bourgeois revolutions, has inexorably driven the capitalist economy, an economy that has always required the bourgeois state to impose its will with violent force, as profit grows and the points of crisis and class struggle multiply. Indeed, the very US Constitution that is so praised for its mythical egalitarian content was drawn up partly for the purpose of centralizing the army of capital to crush revolts against its rule, such as the well-known but little-discussed “Shay’s Rebellion” of 1786-1787.
Now that the corpulent and filthy body of capital casts off its last democratic attire, we Marxists need only say that the machinations of the Bush gang (as would those of any other administration, for it is not the men who are the real masters in Washington DC) conform to the spirit, if not the letter, of the document put down by the “Founding Fathers”.
As the economy deepens into crisis, it continues with the modern solution
– increased state intervention. The blame for all the troubles is laid
on the heads of a handful of unruly corporate bureaucrats; the Enron and
WorldCom scandals, trumpeted as the heights of corporate criminality (which
the heroic Bush will deal with forthright) serve to eclipse the general
cycle of great profits followed by devastating crises, leading to wars
and further profits and crises, a cycle to which capital is held captive,
regardless of the petty “ethics” of its individual functionaries.
Iraq and Beyond
Today, the armies of the bourgeois regime must sprawl the world over if capitalism is to survive. Iraq was a natural candidate as the next target in the so-called War on Terror, the new figurehead of imperialist expansion that is as hypocritical as it is open-ended. And with the war in Iraq, another ingredient is thrown in the pot: Liberation! A liberation by gunpoint, time-honored tradition of modern bourgeois cynicism. Even the professional humanitarians, stung by dissonance in the UN meetings, must surely bow their heads to this noble end.
However ridiculous the rhetoric of the puppet Bush and his sock-puppet Blair, the propaganda machine is well-oiled and deeply ingrained, and it seems that the majority of the US section of the working class is pacified, if not supportive, towards the aims of the Coalition.
Nevertheless, a growing impatience mounts as roughly 1 Coalition soldier, usually American, has been killed each day since “major combat operations” were declared finished by the US regime. While there is no draft in effect, military service is not quite as voluntary as the brass makes it out to be. The US military recruits by means of what is termed a “poverty draft,” whereby proletarian youth are drawn into the military by promises of college funding or at least better pay than any other employment available to them. For many it is the only available job. One of the military’s premier recruiting grounds is in the territory of Puerto Rico, where the per capita income is less than half of that in Mississipi, the poorest state. Overall, the military’s recruitment campaigns are overwhelmingly targeted at communities generally populated by working class “people of color”. Some media pundits have even recognized as much in a backhanded way, suggesting that a draft be instituted so as to draw recruits from all classes of society.
Various programs exist, such as the “GI Rights Hotline,” which aim to help recruits who want out, and there are occasional acts of resistance by individual soldiers, but there is as of yet no concerted campaign. However, discontent is growing within the ranks, especially after the military announced that it will be extending the soldiers’ stay in Iraq in light of the increased attacks launched against them.
On the eve of the Iraq war, the rallying cry of American leftists was “Inspections, Not War,” confirming the de facto alliance of the anti-war front with imperialism. For the opportunists, while they oppose American imperialism, do so as a loyal opposition within global capital as a whole, at this time siding with the governments of France, Germany, Russia, and others, and overall with the UN, that contemptible cabal of imperialist states, where butchers can come to wear a human mask.
The American leftists, with the blessing of Hollywood celebrities and pop stars, have been at great pains to pronounce that they’re patriots too, and they’re only doing what they feel is best for their great nation! They represent the interests of a minority in the American bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, who watch the continuing dissolution of the old “free world” alliances of the Cold War with nervousness.
The war now ended (or so it seems), there is little left for them to do but point fingers at Bush and make a big scandal out of the false intelligence with which the war was officially justified. “If only we had a more responsible president!” And so these alleged dissenters, who are ever eager to trumpet their “heroic” stands against state tyranny, are fully integrated into the system and will help fill the voting booths next year.
Meanwhile, the US government has resumed involvement in the so-called peace process in Palestine. However, this involvement may become increasingly nominal as Israel ceases to be the US’s central bulwark in the Middle East.
Perhaps of more significance are the recent African ventures. Bush has toured Africa with a newfound, and convenient, humanitarianism. Misgivings over Iraq aside, what respectable champion of “human rights” and “freedom”, cherished ideals of liberal do-gooders, could deny that an intervention in war-torn Liberia is a worthy cause? As with his earlier crocodile tears over Auschwitz, Bush condemned the sins of slavery committed by his predecessors, like a hitman who comes to confession to ask, not so much to absolve a past murder, but for permission for the next one.
An obvious question, for those having even a passing familiarity with recent African history, is why the US regime has set its eyes on Africa, when it had previously ignored the conflicts that have ravaged countries throughout the continent for years. One clear reason is the familiar need for oil, of which several African countries have plenty, and indeed, the US is already drawing about 18% of its oil from Nigeria, Angola, and Gabon, with large American investments being poured into Equatorial Guinea so as to exploit its ample oil supply in the near future. African oil provides an excellent opportunity for American oil companies to lessen their dependency on Middle Eastern oil controlled by OPEC.
More broadly, however, American capital needs new markets in the face of a strengthening European Union, which threatens to become a major imperialist rival against the US and its allies. Bush’s blasting of the EU in May over its ban on American biotechnology, and the US government’s petition to the World Trade Organization to intervene, are emblematic of a growing animosity between the powers. Just as the leaders of the EU cite biotech’s potentially harmful effects as their reason for opposing it, so does Bush wave African famines around as indicating a need for genetically modified crops. In the end, both of these reasons are a propaganda excuse for a looming trade fight.
Soon, the US military may establish its presence in Liberia, with the alleged intention of ending the violence and enforcing another project of “liberation”. Liberia could serve as a useful toehold for American imperialist influence, as it engages further noble causes, such as the aforementioned famines or the AIDS crisis, as means of extending its tendrils throughout the continent.
When we make these observations, let’s make it clear that we communists are certainly not indifferent to the conflicts and disasters that blight the world periodically. We have no lack of sympathy for the victims of these events. However, the imposing military forces arrayed today, by the world’s great bourgeois states, exist purely for the protection and expansion of capital. Capitalism, in the course of its designs, may have its police states intervene in various ravaged quarters, trumpeting its humanitarianism and temporarily alleviating some problems, but overall it is capital itself, with its necessary crises and conflicts, that breeds these very horrors, which will continue until the proletarian revolution delivers the death blow to such a monstrous system.
And so we can only observe with grim irony when the US regime, the same
one that funds openly murderous regimes the world over (such as that of
Equatorial Guinea in the very continent of Africa), which has aggravated
the AIDS crisis in Africa by forbidding the production of generic AIDS
medicines, pretends to be humanitarian when there is a profit to be made
from it. We of course do not expect or demand that it behave otherwise.
Only with the violent disposal of the bourgeois state can we put an end
to the atrocities inherent to its existence.
In October 2002, the regime responded to the west coast Longshoremen dispute with the Taft-Hartley Act, referred to by some as the Slave Labor Act, which, among other things, forbids general strikes, slowdowns, and secondary boycotts, leaves the bosses without any obligation to negotiate with unions, and allows the president to intervene in labor disputes deemed a threat to the national interest. The invocation of this act was both a mark of an economic crisis, and a reminder to all American workers of what interest the bourgeois state serves, to the point of dictatorial force if necessary. The dock workers eventually won a new contract but the implications for militant strike action remain.
Attacks on workers continue in the troubled airlines companies, which threaten layoffs resulting from bankruptcy if their workers’ unions don’t cooperate with tremendous wage cuts. It turned out that when unions cooperated, the layoffs came anyway. US Airways used the Iraq war, just as they had used the attacks of September 11th 2001, as an excuse to force wage concessions from their workers and impose over 3,000 layoffs. American Airlines imposed on its flight attendants’ and pilots’ unions a similar agreement allowing 3,000 layoffs and severe wage cuts, while at the same time the airline’s executives received raises. After months of disputes, the unions conceded, and at the beginning of July this year the layoffs have begun to take effect. The union bureaucrats of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), representing mechanics and baggage handlers from US Airways and United Airlines, came off to many workers as working on the side of the bosses.
In one instance, IAM made an agreement with United Airlines in Indianapolis to allow the closure of UA’s maintenance center there, despite a union contract forbidding such a closure. As a result, UA’s mechanics voted in July to end their 58 year membership in IAM and switch to the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA), a relatively small union outside of the AFL-CIO with a reputation for being more militant. The AMFA’s advantages are its transparent negotiations, the control exerted by the rank and file over the officers, and the fact that it had already won mechanics at Northwest Airlines the best contract in the industry. Overall, workers in the airline industry are recognizing that the economic crises and company collapses are features inherent to the present social system, and are rejecting the bosses’ reasoning that states that workers who resist their exploitation are the cause of their own misery.
A notable independent union movement that has emerged in recent years is the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW unites farm workers throughout the state of Florida who are largely Haitians, Latinos, and Mayan Indian immigrants, who are paid meager wages for grueling work. The CIW is best-known of late for its campaign against the fast-food chain Taco Bell, who buy many of their tomatoes from the “Six L’s Packing Company, Inc”, based in Immokalee, Florida. Six L’s pays its workers forty cents for every 32-pound bucket they pick. At such a rate, they would have two pick 2 tons of tomatoes if they were to make fifty dollars in a day. Taco Bell’s excuse: It’s the responsibility of the contractor company and not us! Which has not stopped Taco Bell from refusing to buy from contractors who mistreat livestock. The CIW has launched a campaign to increase the wages of tomato-pickers by 1 cent per pound, employing a combination of work stoppages and national boycotts. Though a definitive victory for the CIW has yet to come, marches in support of the Florida tomato-pickers have been held nation-wide, and student boycotts have forced the closure of Taco Bell locations in 16 college campuses. Most importantly, the issue has achieved a wide-scale awareness and many fellow farm-workers are beginning to express solidarity with the struggle of the CIW.
Overall, proletarians in the US are facing a tremendous bourgeois offensive in all industries, with government-backed infringements on healthcare and retirement benefits, and a general lengthening of the work week.
Meanwhile, nearly 10 million workers are unemployed and the figure is rising. The leadership of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella of the vast majority of American unions, is content to blame Bush for the economic crisis and to back the Democrats, rather than encourage a militant union movement actually capable of achieving results for the proletariat. However, the AFL-CIO, while generally a harbor for regime unions, does include some unions that are making progress, such as the union of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) which is aggressively organizing thousands of workers and leading a growing drive by many unions to organize outside of the government’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The NLRB imposes a lengthy time of legal wrangling before elections are held, which give the employers plenty of time to intimidate or fire workers who are pro-union, and to douse the workforce with anti-union propaganda. The growing dissatisfaction with the NLRB, and the turn to extralegal methods of struggle, is a positive sign on the road towards a red union movement.
The problem is that successfully organizing outside of the NLRB requires that workers have other resources with which to fight, such as strong support from workers nearby, and from the local working class community.
The few examples given here of union struggles are far from exhaustive, even inadequate, but it is hoped that some idea is given of the developments within what is presently the most imposing bastion of world capital that has ever existed. The present period of recession presents an intense attack on the US working class, and more and more proletarians are responding in kind.
The illusions of security and comfort that have long pacified the workers
of the United States have already been broken for most, as the capitalist
crisis reveals the unavoidable precariousness of the proletarian condition,
as well as the only way out – the communist revolution.
We dealt with the turmoil and chaos in the Postal system last year in an earlier article. The projected “job losses” are now being put into effect. There are more than 30,000 jobs expected to disappear.
The attack upon the Post Office, in all its different sections, is intended to break up the large state enterprise which employs a significant number of workers. That has already been done with other industries, from the docks to telecoms. It also plays another role, that of experimenting with state sponsored reorganisations, seeking models for the knife to be taken to the Health Service. The projected strategy for the Health Service is the involvement of Public Private Partners [PPP]. The role of PPPs will be to provide access for private capital to the Health Service, in the form of investment, and the creaming off profits, instead of just getting interest payments.
At the beginning of the year the Government was dithering about how it should proceed. Should it continue with some sort of state-supported national postal service, or follow the recommendations of its own state-sponsored regulator, Post-Comm?
The approach Post-Comm wanted was more the break up of the Post Office into smaller units, with the market being opened up to more intensive “competition”. The much cherished “free market” (of Adam Smith and other crazies) may do wonders for individual enterprises, but then again the state must appear to take into account the administration of society as a whole. It is one thing to consider retrenching the postal service to the profitable areas (often called “cherry picking”); it is another to let the universal postal system itself disappear. Consider the bizarre consequences of not having a universal postal service, with a guaranteed delivery to all parts of the country – there will be areas where the “writ” of the post will not run, for the Courts, Inland Revenue, and other Government departments. In the end some other agency, at whatever cost, will have to be created to cover this.
During March the examination of the various opinions were being considered by the Department of Trade and Industry. The post offices (for the sale of stamps and the acceptance of registered post) often depend upon fees for the paying of state benefits (pensions, social security payments) to pay their way. The state is planning to scrap this arrangement, and instead issue plastic cards for payments to be made through banks. There are two types of post offices, the main post offices (state operated) and sub-post offices (private franchises). A proposed network of sub-post offices has been suggested (which is just an excuse getting rid of some of them through “amalgamation”). The issue of a universal bank through which people can get there money using the proposed plastic cards has been raised. There has already been a retrenchment of the banking system – unprofitable branches have been closed, often limiting them to urban areas. Some areas in towns and cities have already become bankless. Perhaps this is the “enlightened self-interest” of Adam Smith?
The Reaction of the Communication Workers Union
While the powers that be considered the two options for the future of the Postal system the Communication Workers Union [CWU] decided to publicly intervene. Of the two options, they decided to back the retention of the Consignia type of operation. A warning was given to the Labour Party that if the Post-Comm option was favoured the members of their union would not be able to distinguish between the actions of Post-Comm and the Labour Party. Then the “pressure” to break the link between the CWU and the labour party would become very worrying for the leadership, according to its General Secretary, Billy Hayes. Mr Hayes was quick enough to say that he personally did not support any move to break the link with the labour party, as there is “no viable alternative outside the labour party”.
After the internal state decisions had taken place, there was the announcement of 13,000 jobs going at Parcelforce, the parcel delivery arm of Consignia. This would be by redundancies as part of the “restructuring” of the parcel delivery service. In June there was an announcement of a further 17,000 job losses, this time in the postal delivery system itself. More job cuts could be on the way when the transport review has been completed. The CWU was quick enough to oppose any compulsory redundancies.
Stating that he was concerned at the morale of the postal workers in general, the new Chairman of Consignia, Allan Leighton, announced early morning visits to sorting offices to explain to shop floor workers what is happening. He will be busily presenting financial figures on the need for restructuring, to bring the Postal system back into profitability. Of course the figures in the accounts have been suitably prepared to show “losses”, but where these come from are neatly buried in sub-totals. Only the stark choices facing the industry are supposedly apparent.
No doubt Mr Leighton will be asking for commitment for the workers on the shop-floor. He had only just decided to resign his directorship of Scottishpower after speculation about his diverse interests. Whether this was a large financial sacrifice is not known – he has still another nine directorships, besides Consignia, to supplement any largesse available. That same commitment will not be forthcoming from him – when sought out by the Government to take over the running of the Postal system, he was reputed to have said: either I get the backing of the Government, or I’m off! Such a luxury of flexible options does not extend far down to the shop-floor.
Immediate measures with the object of raising morale were announced. The publicly despised name, Consignia, has been consigned to the waste paper bin. A new name, the Royal Mail Group Plc has been devised, which is simply the resurrection of an earlier name for the Post Office. And the corporate cost for this branding exercise, a cool £1million. In an attempt to cheer up the shop-floor, the knife would be taken to the top-heavy management structure. The Chairman was happy to announce that job cuts would include a “significant” reduction of management layers. There are seventeen grades of management, circuits for the endless passing of reports, and the buck! No mention of job losses at Board level was made, of course.
All this was to distract attention to the real attack, the saving of £350 million by the scrapping of the second post, where two daily deliveries are made Monday to Friday. That figure will be the costs of the posties who will be dispensed with in order to cut costs. It is not a mere saving of costs but a lengthening of the working day. Whereas now letters in the urban areas are usually delivered by late lunchtime (including the second post), the public are being warned that the post can be delivered late in the afternoon. This will mean the cutting out of postal rounds by combining areas which a single postie will cover. So the same worker will begin early in the morning and be delivering late into the afternoon. Any of the old flexibility they may have had will be taken away.
Union cooperation in the restructuring plans
The General Secretary of the CWU was allegedly firm in condemning enforced redundancies, and saying that “we want the company to demonstrate to us that the restructuring will work”. The company duly obliged by the publication of the financial figures for the year 2001/2. The bottom line was a daunting loss of £1.1 billion. This was nearly all composed of “Exceptional Items”. The Times indicated that the “Exceptional Items” included £700 million to cover redundancy charges. This is really a sophisticated financial slight of hand, an accounting legerdemain, where losses have been created to justify their own expenditure, to remove more than a third of the workforce.
Having created this bottom line loss of £1.1 billion, with the press shouting about losses of £1.5 million per day, an atmosphere of disaster is brought into being. But the losses before the “Exceptional Items” were down on the accounts as £68 million, which gives a daily loss of 0.2% of the hyped figure in the press. And even that small loss depends upon “right-offs”, assets being removed from the balance sheet and counter-balanced as an item of expenditure.
The “disastrous” losses, a postal service in crisis, and needing to be “turned around”, had another useful effect for the new Chairman of Consignia/whatsitsname – the Government announced that the Treasury would release £1.8 billion that it had been “holding” on behalf of the Post Office, to aid its restructuring. And so wagon loads of money are suddenly available, not to improve the services to the public, but the mass sackings of 30,000 postal workers. This is what the state has been after all along.
The amount the Treasury are providing the Postal service (£1.8 billion) through the good offices of Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Minister, is defined as past cash and dividends paid by Royal Mail to the Government. It now seems that the European Union [EU] has been consulted as to whether they have any objections to the cash injection.
The reason for this sudden consultation is because the European Commission has recently criticised Deutsche Post, the German Post Office 9owned 69% by the state), for using E.572 million of public funds, intended for providing the letter delivery service, to subsidise the parcel delivery service instead. If Deutsche Post fails in an appeal to the European Court of Justice, then it faces repaying the E.572 million, plus interest. This case arose out of a complaint brought by the US owned United Parcels Service as unfair competition, because Deutsche Post’s door-to-door parcel service was being provided below cost.
The rationale of the European Commission is that a state monopoly in the postal system can be subsidised, but not in services which are open to competition. In Italy the Poste Italiane are permitted to make such subsidies. “But when Deutsche Post uses state funds to engage in practices which hurt competitors, that becomes a competition issue.”
How the Redundancies will take place
The leadership of the CWU plays right into the hands of management by “opposing” only compulsory redundancies. Compulsory redundancies are more expensive, in giving notice, “consultation” and other niceties that go with the whole process. They will simply call for volunteers, those who have had enough of all the abuse and bullying by management, and simply be glad to be away.
But there will be another process which will get under way, what is sometimes called “natural wastage”, that is those who leave during the normal course of events. There will be those who retire, and then there will be those who management will be out to get rid of, whether driven to sickness, or dismissed for alleged misdeeds. This will be all to save on redundancy payments. The CWU will not stand in the way of the spate of dismissals that will take place.
The only recourse will be for the shop-floor workers to try and defend their own, and no doubt the CWU will be in there to convince the workers to put the matter “into procedure”, and hope that the intimidated workers somehow escape their fate. It will be in this process that the CWU will be drawn even closer towards management, into being a junior partner in the “saving” of the Postal system.
The fallacy of these procedures was shown in the case of two postal workers (who are brothers) who were dismissed for alleged football hooliganism in May 2000. They were caught on camera supposedly fighting (in fact protecting people from attack) during the Copenhagen 2000 Eufa Cup Final, between Arsenal and Galatasary. When they were dismissed there were unofficial strikes to try to get them reinstated.
No doubt the CWU intervened in order to put the case “into procedure”. If it could not be settled by internal negotiations, then the case would go to an Employment Tribunal. The hearing was held and the decision was that the dismissal was unfair and that the brothers should also be reinstated. This Consignia has refused to accept. The CWU has been busily negotiating, but unsurprisingly to little avail. There have been reports that large settlements are being discussed – one is being offered £125,000, the other “a lesser amount” – to settle the matter. This is not because of the negotiation skills of the union officials. Rather it is the threat of more unofficial strikes, in the key London area, which is causing Consignia to consider large payments. The outcome of such a strike would mean either a victory for the dismissed men (only to be set up at a latter stage by management) or a protracted near national strike if consignia made any attempt to move “blacked” mail around the country to have it sorted in other areas.
The reliance of the workers upon unofficial strikes, keeping their affairs as much as possible out of the hands of the union’s officials, is the only way the postal workers can protect their interests. It shows once again that the workers need their own economic organisations, in order to fight out the class struggle, and prepare for their own emancipation.