Every day the global financial crisis sets new negative records for the capitalist economy. The governments of all countries are bending over backwards to relieve the bankrupt financial institutions and to increase the exploitation of the class that works. The regime’s loudhailers are constantly telling us to trust them, that it is not the end of capitalism. No. Not the end of capitalism, but its death throes, which will only be ended by the communist revolution.
Bourgeois propaganda would have us believe that the crisis has been caused by the misdeeds of a few unscrupulous capitalists or by a lack of financial controls but this is not the case. The capitalist regime is in crisis because of its internal contradictions, as predicted by Marxism. It is the tendency of the rate of profit to fall that propels great masses of capital to move away from the production of commodities and into speculative swindles. It is the crisis of over-production that is bringing industry and commerce to a grinding halt. Behind the crisis of financial capital there lurks the general crisis of the capitalist economy, recession and deflation.
But if the big and petty bourgeoisie weep over their capital going up in smoke, the proletariat, same as ever, has nothing to lose but its chains and has a world to conquer. Pressed on all sides by sackings, longer working days, increased exploitation, lowering of real wages and dismantling of the welfare state, their only option is to rebel against their situation and shout out: LONG LIVE COMMUNISM!
Capitalism promised to bring wealth, peace, liberty and democracy. Instead it has brought hunger, war, injustice and ruthless dictatorships to control the proletariat, even when they are masked as democracy, or as fake socialism as has already happened in Russia or in Maoist and post-Maoist China. The present economic convulsions, which have already severely affected proletarian living standards throughout the world, can only get worse.
Capital has already shown how it deals with these crises: with wars, which destroy factories, industrial infrastructures and commodities and thus open the way to a new division of the world between new imperialist powers, a war that is as global as its crisis. Capital will try to send the proletariat of all countries, like lambs to the slaughter, into a new imperialist massacre which will inevitably be worse than the ones in 1914 and 1939. That is what awaits the working class if it doesn’t deploy its international and revolutionary strength to put a stop to it.
The capitalist regime will not collapse of its own accord but throughout the world will have to be destroyed by a social revolution. It will be a revolution of the working class against the bourgeoisie and the landowners, like the Paris Commune, and Russia in October 1917.
Today, the most conscious and combative workers can fight against all this. To confront the overwhelming power of the bourgeoisie along with its politicians and trade-union leaders we need to work to recreate class based trade-union organisations that aim to organise workers to defend themselves, as a class, in their workplaces. We need to overcome the divisions that characterise this rotten bourgeois society; between public and private sector, between young and old, part and full time, locals and immigrants... Racism is the best antidote to class struggle.
Today’s strike, called by rank-and-file trade-unionists, is a step in the right direction. However if workers want to defend their standard of living they will need to overcome every narrow sectarianism and move towards wider organisational unity and greater unity of action; and this will need to happen outside and against the official trade-union confederations, which have passed irreversibly over to the side of the bosses.
In this out and out social war, the class will see that the economic
struggle is not enough in itself. Even just to survive the proletariat
will have to overthrow this regime of war and starvation. The most combative
elements of the class, freed from the influence of ruling class ideology,
freed from any lingering hopes that the system can be reformed, will eventually
rediscover its true party of old. And then it will come to see, and understand,
the social and military reality of the international communist revolution.
A Police operation against the proletariat trapped in the Gaza Strip
On 27 December, a fiery hail of bombs and missiles, dropped by F16 aeroplanes and Apache helicopters, the pride of the United States ‘defence industry’, rained down on the Gaza Strip. The bombardment continued without interruption for 8 days. On the night of 4 January, after intense shelling, land operations commenced in which large numbers of armoured vehicles and motorised artillery were deployed.
The Le Monde editorial of 30 December described the brutal attack on the Gaza ghetto as a “useless bloodbath”. «We will only stop after the work is done» declared the minister of Defence and head of the Labour Party, Ehmud Barak, whose views are entirely aligned with those of his colleague in foreign affairs, Tzipi Ivni, and Ehoud Olmert the head of government.
Despite endless Israeli propaganda to the contrary, it wasn’t Hamas breaking the truce by launching Kassam missiles that prompted this action.
The launching of missiles against Israeli territory, provoking much fear and some casualties, was already happening when the Strip was under the direct control of the Israeli army. The Israeli government is therefore well aware that occupation isn’t the best way of preventing them.
Another reason for the attack can be found in the coming elections in Israel: everyone knows that to get votes it’s always a good idea to terrorise the electorate, and then step forward as the righteous avenger. Ehmud Barak gained 4 points in the opinion polls after his criminal bombing of Gaza; that’s one point for every hundred dead.
Gaza is a city, with buildings and dwellings in close proximity. The missiles and bombs massacre militiaman and policemen but also, of course, civilians. It is similar to Lebanon two and half years ago, but in a situation which is even more tragic for the civilian population because there is no way it can escape the bombardment, imprisoned as they are within an area which is little more than 350 square kilometres.
For years this little territory has been under siege and its borders closed. Electricity is supplied from Israel, along with fuel, food and medicine. 50% of the population are unemployed; there is no economy worth speaking of; even the few small industries there were have been wiped out; even fishing isn’t possible after the blockade by the Israeli navy prevented fishing boats taking to the water.
Actively participating in maintaining the stranglehold on Gaza is the Egyptian state, which controls the Strip’s southern border and will neither allow anyone to leave nor allow the besieged to receive any kind of help, not even food or medicine. The Egyptian state, badly affected by the economic crisis and with a social situation at the point of exploding, fears the Gaza proletariat could spark off a revolt in its own country, which is the most populous one in the area with a strong proletariat not lacking in class tradition, as the recent strikes against starvation wages have shown. The regime therefore emphasises its links with United States imperialism which provides it generous subsidies, and collaborates in the massacre of the Palestinian people.
The Arab League, on the other hand, hasn’t even managed to meet whilst Europe yet again demonstrates its lack of interest and impotence. The UNO confirms its total complicity: at the emergency meeting of the Security Council on the night of January 4th the USA blocked a timid declaration, presented by Libya, which called for an immediate ceasefire and expressed concern about the “mounting violence in Gaza”.
Apart from the personal ‘electoral’ motivations of its rotten political personnel, the State of Israel has opted for war because it is the only way of resolving its crisis. It isn’t in order to put an end to rocket and suicide attacks, but because it will help it survive in the current economic and social impasse. The capitalist regime is bolstered by war. In Israel the war strengthens the class collaboration required by the bourgeoisie to continue as imperialism’s guard dog in the Middle East. That is why the Israeli proletariat has to be terrorized and subdued and why it continues to serve as cannon fodder: not in order to defend “the Jews” from the menace of “Arab hatred”, but to defend United States interests in the area.
The war means that the economic crisis, the sackings and the poverty, that are increasingly the common lot of both the Israeli and the pariah Palestinian proletariat, can be concealed; the war enables the Israeli proletariat to forget that after 40 years in a continuous state of war and collaboration with its bourgeoisie, it has its back to the wall and is impoverished both economically and morally, as is shown by its trade unions and political parties, in thrall to the interests of the most odious militarism.
The war against Gaza is a godsend for the arms industry, which is the only one not in crisis. Modern bombs and missiles, fired off thousands at a time, represent a highly lucrative business worth millions of dollars; the war also allows the technology to be refined by testing weapons in corpore vili. The war finds its rationale in war itself.
Like the war in Beirut in 1982, when the Israeli and Lebanese bourgeoisie organised the massacre in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps, this war is above all a social war, against the proletariat. It is against the civilian population, and targets proletarians just as much, if not more, than the militiamen and Hamas troops. To terrorize, to annihilate, to destroy commodities and men is the only ‘political plan’ that lies behind this umpteenth massacre.
The land invasion will not fulfil its declared aims. Israel may win, maybe, precariously, on the strictly military level by occupying the Strip, but it cannot control such a densely populated area; that in fact was the reason it withdrew in 2005, trying to close Gaza behind a cordon sanitaire.
The fact that Hamas forces alone are opposing the Israeli army’s war machine could make of that party a reference point for the lifeless, corrupt and reactionary Palestinian nationalism, but both the party – Hamas – and the cause – Palestinian nationalism – should not obtain the solidarity and support of the communist proletariat, either in Palestine or the rest of the world.
The Hamas leaders do not fear the war because they know that war reinforces their movement, and they hope it will lead to their definitive supremacy over Al Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority, as happened in Lebanon where war resulted in the Hezbollah movement managing to prevail over the country’s various communities, Christians included, as the standard bearer of Lebanese nationalism.
The Gaza proletariat will probably be propelled by the massacres into rallying around the green banners of Islam, which poses as one party which wishes to resist the aggressors. But the Hamas regime is a bourgeois dictatorship, like that of the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank, a government that not only uses every means at its disposal to combat the prospect of revolutionary communism, but which also ruthlessly suppresses class organisations of a trade union nature.
The Gaza proletariat mustn’t forget its own war, which is against hunger, poverty and illness. Like the Paris Comune, its war is a war on two fronts, against the Israeli tanks and against the Hamas government, with the latter not hesitating to draw the proletarian masses into a pointless suicidal struggle in order to impose its hegemony over Palestinian territory.
The demonstrations which are taking place throughout the world, in protest against the massacre and in support of Palestinian nationalism against Israeli and American imperialism, have seen the participation of immigrant workers from the Arab countries, but far from making a contribution by clarifying what the proletariat should do, such an objective is not even addressed. What is being fought is not a war between nations, races or religions, but a war between classes. It is not in the interests of the class of workers in Palestine, in Israel or anywhere else in the world to line up on either of the imperialist fronts, not even to fight for a miserable lost cause like the Palestinian bourgeoisie’s. To do so would mean getting drawn in to the bourgeoisie’s warmongering propaganda and its diplomatic games – in fact part of the preparations for a wider global armed conflict – and contributing to keeping the workers tied to nationalism and inter-classism.
The directive of the revolutionary Communist Party is clear: no to solidarity with the reactionary national Palestinian movement; no to allying with bourgeois movements and parties in the name of a generic anti-imperialism.
The proletariat in the Arab countries and in Israel must start by rebuilding
defense and struggle organisations of its own; organisations which are
separate from the bourgeois and opportunist parties; without these, without
its own class trade unions and its own party it is destined to remain cannon
fodder in the service of a bourgeois politics which is becoming ever more
militarist, cynical and criminal.
In Greece a massive youth movement is underway expressing outrage against police brutality and the general social situation in Greece. For many days, despite repressive measures, the situation on the streets has been out of control and the government has proved unable to restore order. It is the biggest rebellion since the collapse of the Colonel’s Junta back in 1974.
In the centre of Athens the riots were, as usual, concentrated around the universities (In Greece the universities have political asylum status enshrined in law); in Patras, the main police station was placed under siege. There have been numerous revolts and may participants in Athens and in every other Greek city and generally throughout the country; there have been sieges and attacks against dozens of police stations, violent riots, occupations of public buildings and sit-ins. On Friday 19th of December there was a demonstration involving tens of thousands of students who have resisted despite the tear gas. As we write there are 800 schools and 150 faculties occupied. The offices of the trade-union federation, (GSEE) have been occupied by left, mainly anarchist, groups.
Those participating in the movement are mainly students, anarchists and most of all angry young school students. They are expressing their rage not only against the recent murder of a student by police, the spark that set off the riots, but against the consequences of the social crisis: against poor education, poverty, social inequality, corruption and high levels of youth unemployment. It is a generation which feels it has no future, and many of them express their rage through violent riots against the police: for days hundreds of young people have been directly confronting the special forces, hurling stones and Molotov cocktails at them.
Today, fifteen days after the student was killed, the movement is isolated. As usual, a sign of this weakening is the actions of the anarchist groups, ‘fighting their revolution’ by attacking the police and engaging in ‘exemplary’ violent actions. Every such disorder is used by the bourgeoisie to discredit the movement and to keep workers away from it.
But this movement cannot be likened to the one in the banlieues of Paris. Even though Athens has poor suburbs, naturally, they don’t have the ghetto-like quality of the ones in Paris. And the demonstrators aren’t of the same type: here they are mainly students and young people in general, not the ‘invisibles’ of the banlieues.
The working class hasn’t so far reacted and the proletarian masses in general haven’t taken part in the revolt. A general strike, which had already been planned before the latest events, took place on Wednesday December 10th. The prime minister repeatedly called for the heads of the Greek Workers Confederation to suspend it but they refused. The strike received wide support, mainly from the public sector, as usual.
The line of the rightist government, floundering in a deep political crisis, has been one of ‘zero tolerance’. The police has received orders to use aggression and provocative measures. More than 100 people have been arrested.
The social democratic opposition (PASOK), standing for the next government, is keeping its distance from the movement and studiously avoided mobilising its supporters. The powerful Stalinist Greek Communist Party has taken a shameful position by backing the government, attributing the assassination to the policeman’s lack of training and condemning the riots as organised provocations originating from mysterious centres inside and outside the country. The rioters are denounced as criminals. Anyway, they are trying to control their rank and file by calling party rallies. Only the smaller left coalition, Sinaspismos, which wants to join PASOK as part of the next government, has supported and taken part in the demonstrations, but nevertheless condemning the rioting and calling for appeasement.
The union bosses are doing everything they can to avoid supporting the movement and mobilising the workers. The only organised forces with an important role in the movement are the anarchists and the groups of the Greek “far left” (Trotskyists, Maoists, etc) who play a leading role in the university student movement. These forces, which bow to spontaneity and idealise youth, talk of popular insurrection and call for the overthrow of the government. Some of the demonstrators are influenced by the anarchists, whose “strategy” for the most part, in Greece, can be reduced to rioting: in other words, handing the bourgeois state an excuse to repress the movement on a plate!
The profound social transformation in Greece over the last twenty years is what is responsible for these events, of course. According to the official data 21% of the population live in poverty. Tens of thousands of young workers and employees take home around 700 euros a month. The rate of unemployment is around 10%. And all this before the world financial crisis has hit the country, although that is only a matter of time.
The problem is that the working masses haven’t got involved, and probably, even this time, they won’t. And there are many reasons why that is so.
The trade unions are completely controlled by the trade union bureaucracy, linked in its turn to the bourgeois parties of right and left. The working class has suffered greatly over the last few years seeing its standard of living, working conditions and social security worsening considerably. Most families are in debt to the banks through mortgages on their homes, consumer loans and credit cards. Thousands of workers are faced with the threat of unemployment and lack of job security. The workers think of themselves as isolated, fed up individuals trying to ‘make do’ in a rapidly worsening situation. Despite the wide-eyed dreams of petty bourgeois leftism, anarchism and spontaneism, a youth movement, even a very robust one, won’t be enough to get the working class to take to the streets.
Another very important factor is a general disillusionment with politics and the lack of a social perspective, something that is certainly the case in the rest of Europe as well.
Thus the government was able to take forceful steps against the demonstrators whilst at the same time counting on the movement simply dispersing over the Christmas holidays.
We need to analyse what lies behind these events and see them for what they are. It isn’t an “insurrection”. It is a youth movement that by its very nature has its limits. One can’t say that some tens of thousands of demonstrators in a capital of 5 million inhabitants is an “insurrection”.
There is no insurrection without the working class. The only true insurrection is the revolt of the proletariat. Nothing can replace the historic role of the working class. Its mobilisation alone represents the real danger to the capitalist system. In Greece, as elsewhere, the movement cannot take root without the mobilisation of the great proletarian masses, which is yet to raise its head. The State’s main preoccupation therefore is keeping the working class repressed, because the bourgeoisie fears a future outbreak of the workers’ movement in response to the dire effect of the world economic crisis. The events in Greece are a prelude to much greater social disorder.
Obviously, given the absence of the party, the level of class-consciousness, both amongst the young and amongst workers, is practically zero. The prevalent political demand, advanced by many leftist groups, is to get rid of the right wing government. This is simply an expression of the left-wing “militant reformism” so typical of the bourgeois oppositional forces of PASOK.
But what these recent events actually reveal is the necessity for a
communist internationalist party, the one force that can express the true
interests of the working class. That is what lies at the heart of the matter.
Report presented at the May 2003 and May 2005 party meetings.
Iraq under the monarchy
The social structure
The region we know today as Iraq was incorporated into the world market in the second half of the 19th Century, from when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, and it entered it as a grain exporting country. Within the space of a few decades market oriented agriculture would experience an unprecedented development. If between 1867-1871 the value of cereal exports was 140 thousand pounds sterling per annum, by 1912-1913 it had risen to 8 million pounds per annum.
This almost sixty-fold growth in production over a space of 40 years was determined by a process of agricultural modernisation that would cause the disintegration of the earlier pastoral economy, structured at the social level around tribes, and lead to the abandonment of nomadism. Between 1860 and 1930 nomads would decrease from 37% of the overall population to 7%, whilst the percentage of peasant farmers would increase from 41% to 68%. Meanwhile, due to the direct intervention of the Turkish State, in whose territory Iraq lay, the land hitherto held as common property would be divided up, and the old tribal chieftains (known as shaikhs in the Arab areas and aghas in the Kurdish ones) would be transformed into landed proprietors. Indeed in the 1870s a reform to the system of land ownership was introduced which made ownership dependent on the production of a title deed; the land remained State property, but the registered owner of the title deed could enjoy virtually total rights of ownership.
According to the new code,
«collective landed property was expressly prohibited and registration of the title deeds could only be in the name of an individual. In the areas of largely tribal cultivation, it was often the name of the Shaikh, as the most powerful and prestigious individual, that was placed on the title deed. Either through ignorance or suspicion, or through a misplaced trust in the altruism of the shaikhly families, the great majority of the tribal cultivators failed to register and were thus transformed into tenant farmers» (Charles Tripp, History of Iraq, 2nd edition, p.16).This process of centralisation of landed property in the hands of the shaikhs was later aggravated by the English occupation, then control, of the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul, and by the birth of the Iraqi State under the Hashemite monarchy in 1921. The English would confirm the landed proprietors as the mainstay of Iraqi society. The pro-British monarchy would be propped up by this social class of rich landowners and work exclusively in their interests, promulgating laws that broadened and protected their rights, repressing peasant uprisings and using a good part of the state budget to benefit them. Within the space of a few decades they managed to concentrate virtually all the land in their hands. When the monarchy fell, in 1958, 2% of the landowners owned two thirds of the land under cultivation and just 49 great families owned 17% of it. Meanwhile, at the other extreme, 64% of the peasant proprietors owned a mere 3.6%.
The predominant lease-holding system was the iqta, by which the great land holdings were divided into small plots that were rented or share-cropped by peasant families, bound by a quasi-servile relationship to the owner.
«In 1933, the dominant influence of the landowners was again apparent in the Law Governing the Rights and Duties of the Cultivators. This gave landowners wide powers over their tenants, holding the latter responsible for crop failures, making them vulnerable to eviction at short notice on one hand, and tying them to the land until all their debts to the landowner were discharged on the other. Given the condition of peasant indebtedness in certain areas, this caused many to flee the land for a life of destitution in the sarifas (reed and mud hut slums) around Baghdad» (Tripp, p.85).One of the consequences of this lease-holding system was that agricultural production, destined mainly for export, was increased, both by bringing more land under cultivation (increased fivefold between 1913 and 1943 and doubling again between 1943 and 1958) and by ramping up the pressure on the peasant farmers (in the 50s many sharecroppers only received 15-20% of the harvest). The technical improvement of agriculture, meanwhile, was obstructed.
The backwardness of these relations in the countryside was also one of the causes of the country’s slow industrial development. Since the often absentee landlords were loathe to invest their earnings in industry, industrial development was slow and confined largely to the processing of agricultural products and the production of goods for the very restricted internal market.
Oil production, completely in the hands of foreign companies, started to become significant around 1934.
Within this economic context the main concentrations of workers that arose were the dockers in Basra (5,000 workers in the 1940s), on the railways (11,000) and in the oil industry (13,000). Taken as a whole the number of Iraqi workers in enterprises with more than 100 employees rose from 13,000 in 1926 to 63,000 in 1954, of whom half were concentrated in Baghdad and Basra. In the 1950s, if we include workers in the transport and services sector, there were around 400,000 proletarians out of a total urban population of 2,600,000, but for the most part these were employed in minuscule companies employing less than five workers.
During the entire first half of the 19th Century proletarians existed in conditions of dire poverty. In the 1950s, 80% of the population, and 90% of women, were illiterate; there was one doctor to every 6,000 people and one dentist to every 500,000. Welfare assistance for the unemployed, the elderly and the disabled simply didn’t exist. Life expectancy in the rural areas was between 35 and 39 years.
During this phase of economic development the Iraqi bourgeoisie, as
a social class, was inevitably very fragile; its most important sector,
the commercial bourgeoisie, was totally uninterested in long-term investments
whereas the industrial bourgeoisie was directly linked, often via family
ties, to big landed property, with 34% of the young Iraqi industrial sector
taken up with the processing of agricultural products.
The birth of the trade unions
The first economic organisation of a trade-unionist type was called the “Association of Artisans”, founded in 1929. It was led by Muhammed Salih al-Qazzaz, a mechanic who became the first workers’ leader in Iraq, and it combined features both typical of a corporation and a modern trade union organisation. Exclusively class characteristics were lacking since along with the workers in the railway workshops of Baghdad it also organised artisans and small traders, who were fighting mainly for a less iniquitous tax system.
The Association organised a 14-day general strike on July 1931 against the new municipal taxes, mobilising opposition to the British backed monarchy on a nationwide scale. The government responded by outlawing the Association and arresting its leader. It would nevertheless be an undaunted al-Qazzaz who in 1932 formed the first trade union federation. In January 1934, after it had organised a month-long boycott of the British-owned electric power company in Baghdad, this would be outlawed as well.
For the next ten years any kind of legal trade union activity was impossible,
but that didn’t stop workers throughout Iraq taking mass strike action
for higher wages in April-May 1937, with an estimated 20,000 workers taking
part in the strike.
The spread of the communist movement in Iraq during the 1920s was similar to what had occurred in Russia, where the penetration of communist theory was accomplished by intellectuals, the only ones able to read the communist literature, which was almost non-existent in the Russian language; thus it happened in Iraq, where the first communists came mainly from petty bourgeois families. But if in Baghdad propaganda was mainly confined to intellectual circles, in Basra and Nasiriyya, workers’ cities, it was also aimed at workers.
The first appeal, ascribable to a communist organisation, we know about was signed by “a communist worker” and appeared in Nassiriyya in December 1932, entitled “Workers of the world unite! Long life to the union of worker and peasant republics of the Arab countries!” The text was very basic, but its tone was nevertheless clearly classist. This, along with most of the other Iraqi Communist Party documents we will cite, is taken from the book by Ilario Salucci entitled: al-Wathbah (il salto) Movimento comunista e lotta di classe in Iraq (1924-2003) which also includes a detailed bibliography.
Not long after the circles in Baghdad, Basra and Nassiriyya would fix a date for a congress of unification. On March 8, 1935, the birth of the Iraqi communist party was proclaimed in Baghdad under the very generic title of “The Anti-Imperialism Association”, probably a way of trying to evade repression, at least temporarily. The Manifesto of the Association was addressed
«To the workers and peasants, soldiers and students, to all the oppressed!” and certainly expressed a greater political maturity than before by delineating a clear critique, also from an economic point of view, of the system of exploitation to which the Iraqi proletariat had been subjected by the indigenous ruling classes, who in their turn were inseparably linked to British imperialism. The Association immediately launched a programme of demands for both the city and rural proletariat.However, after only a month in existence, the party would break up over the question of whether or not to present itself publicly as a communist party: some groups would split off (in Basra, in Nasiriyya, a partial split in Baghdad), whilst the remaining nucleus decided to publish an illegal newspaper, The People’s Struggle, subtitled “organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Iraq”, whose first number came out in July.
«The first Iraqi revolution [against the British occupation in 1920] would grow thanks to our efforts, thanks to us, the worker and peasant masses. It was our class that bore the anguish, the sacrifices, the tens of thousands of victims (...) The beneficiaries were the financiers, the feudal lords, and the high-ranking officials (...) Our lot instead was hunger, cold and terrible illness (...) and a horde of tax inspectors without a shadow of human pity or dignity (...)
«Today the English and the dominant class are united in their aim of perpetuating the oppression and exploitation from which we suffer... The country’s oil and other raw materials have become an exclusively English preserve, and Iraq is reduced to being an outlet for their commodities and their surplus capital, and into a base for their wars against the neighbouring peoples and any aspiration for liberty that the Arab countries may have. The dominant class, for its part, gorges itself on the tax income, unlawfully appropriates the land, and builds palaces on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. Meanwhile millions of peasants and workers continue to die of hunger, bleed to death, and suffer torment (...)
«We must put an end to these unjust and intolerable conditions. We demand a change in the very foundations of life, a decisive change of advantage to all the productive classes (...) Let us again raise our voices in the countryside, a sound which fills the hearts of our oppressors with terror (...) City-dweller and villager, worker and peasant, united together, of whatever sect or race, supported by the revolutionary thinkers, we march side by side in order, in the first phase of the struggle, to conquer: – the cancellation of all peasant debts; their liberation from burdensome taxes; the distribution of state land to the poor; and the guarantee of all necessary credit; – a guarantee to the workers of their right to organise and to freedom of speech (...) The reopening of their clubs and trades unions; the promulgation of laws to protect workers (...) against arbitrary dismissals and to insure them against hunger in old age; and the realisation of the 8 hour day in all workplaces, applicable to both Iraqi and foreign workers (...)
«Down with English imperialism! Down with the slave-owners’ treaties! Long live the united front against imperialism and against the oppressors of peasants and workers».
The six-point programme, published in August 1935, was a call to fight for:
«1. The expulsion of the imperialists; for the people’s liberty to be guaranteed, for complete independence for the Kurds, and cultural rights (...) for all minorities in Iraq; 2. The distribution of land to the peasantry; 3. The abolition of all debts and mortgages on land (...); 4. The requisition of all property belonging to the imperialists, primarily the banks, oil fields, railways, and the expropriation of the big landowners; 5. The concentration of power in the hands of workers and peasants; 6. An immediate commencement of the social revolution in all areas of life and the freeing of the people from all the various existing forms of oppression».It is interesting to note how the programme addressed both workers and peasants without distinction. It focused on class contradictions alone and totally ignored religious differences, recognising the existence of a national question only in the case of the Kurds and other minorities.
Probably their inexperience, and a lack of the necessary discipline required under conditions of illegality, meant the militants publishing The People’s Struggle were soon arrested, and the newspaper, which had had a print run of around 500 per issue, folded at the end of 1935.
But also the external environment in which the young party had arisen and put down roots was dominated by a Stalinized Communist International which was already completely subjected to the interests of the Russian State. The ex-soviet Russian government was by now just another bourgeois state amongst others in a capitalist world. No longer did it support the taking of power by the proletariat in other countries since any such support would threaten its various collaborative relationships and diplomatic alliances.
The suicidal tactic of the Revolution in stages, imposed on the various national sections, lent itself very well to the aim of burying revolutionary politics. First of all the CPs were supposed to complete, or carry out as the case may be, the bourgeois revolution side by side with the bourgeois nationalists, and only then, with the bourgeois revolution completed and all its institutions up and running, could they go on to fight for socialism.
The VIIth Congress of the Communist International in 1935 imposed the tactic of the Anti-imperialist Popular Front in the colonial countries, which relegated communists to
«taking an active part in the anti-imperialist mass movement headed by the national reformists, and striving to implement joint action with the national reformist and national revolutionary organisations on the basis of a well-defined anti-imperialist platform»,thereby taking away from them any autonomous function.
«Communists in the Arab countries must be profoundly aware of the fact that they respond to the destiny of their people and their country, that on them falls the responsibility of the outcome of the struggle for national independence and social emancipation. They must be conscious of the fact that they are the heirs and defenders of the best national and cultural traditions of their peoples».The Communist parties were urged to
«ensure a strict collaboration with the national-revolutionaries, to achieve strict collaboration with the national-reformist organisations, to support the demands of these organisations directed against the positions of imperialism».Political Crisis in the Thirties
In the 1930s the structure of Iraqi monarchical power ran into crisis. On June 30, 1930, the incoming prime Minister, Nuri al-Sa?id, signed a new treaty, replacing the 1922 one, with Great Britain.
«This diplomatic act recognised Iraq’s independence, with the reservation that important privileges for Great Britain would be maintained for a period of twenty five years, amongst which the possession of two military bases, Habbaniyya near Baghdad and Shu?aiba near Basra. The nationalists were indignant and the population became restive, but Nuri al-Sa?id, who combined in his person the functions of president of the council, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, of the Home Office and of Defence, held the country in a grip of iron. On October 3, 1932, Iraq, under British sponsorship, entered the League of Nations: the British mandate was brought automatically to an end» (P.Rondot, L’Irak, p.28).The rapid growth of a powerful elite was based mainly on the Sunni community and the army, formed by the English in 1921, and on the monarchy.
In 1934 the king managed to introduce obligatory military conscription. This provision incurred the hostility of London, who wanted a less numerous, less expensive and more controllable professional army; the monarchy instead intended to use the army as an instrument to unify the country and reinforce national sentiments; the introduction of obligatory conscription was however greeted negatively by the Shiite landowners in the South and by the Kurds.
In January 1935, unrest erupted in the mid-Euphrates region and in 1935 prominent tribal shaikhs would present a People’s Charter, outlining the concerns of a large section of the population, to the government:
«It accepted the Iraqi State, but focused on the lack of proportional representation for the Shi?a in parliament and the judiciary and called for free elections, freedom of the press and tax reductions» (Tripp, p. 82).After weeks of negotiations, the government decided to resort to repression. Martial law was proclaimed and the Shaikh’s rebellion would be crushed by the army, which was composed mainly of officers and troops from the Sunni areas and under the orders of Bakr Sidqi, the commanding officer of the southern region, who didn’t hesitate to use the recently formed air force against the insurgents. Following this bloody repression «it was clear – commented Tripp – that the tribes were no longer a threat to the power of the central state».
Meanwhile a political opposition to the monarchical power was growing
in the cities as well. Composed mainly of intellectuals and professionals,
the rising bourgeoisie, it was critical of the cliques and factions which
had entrenched themselves at the summit of the Iraqi state. This opposition,
organised around the Al-Ahali newspaper, saw that many of Iraq’s
financial difficulties, many of its social and economic problems could
be laid at the door of the country’s principal landowners, who were accused
of conducting a policy of out and out robbery against the poorest classes,
and of provoking a situation so fraught with social tension that it even
endangered the interests of the bourgeois Iraqi state.
The Coup d’Ètat of 1936
In October 1936, whilst the new prime minister’s brother and chief of the general staff, Taha al-Hashimi, was on a state visit to Turkey, having appointed Bakr Sidqi acting chief of the general staff, the latter, in collusion with Hikmat Sulaiman and other leaders of the Ahali group, would order units under his command to march on Baghdad. At the same time he asked the king to dismiss Yasin al-Hashimi as prime minister and appoint Hikmat Sulaiman in his place, which the king hastened to do.
The new government was formed principally from members of the Ahali group, including a significant numbers of Shi?i ministers, but Bakr Sidqi, who only a few months before had given the order to massacre the insurgent peasants, would become permanent chief of the general staff. Despite this, the new government seemed to promise a new era of social reform and its formation
«was greeted by demonstrations of support in towns throughout Iraq, arranged by various radical discussion groups, by the informal and underground labour associations and by the embryonic Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), all expecting that their various goals could now be achieved» (Tripp, p.91).Thus the ‘embryonic’ ICP, in deference to Moscow’s orders, although meeting resistance from some comrades, supported General Bakr Sidqi’s coup d’ètat and entered the Popular Reform Association, a progressive organisation which was fighting for democratic freedom, the legalisation of trade unions, the eight hour day and the fixing of a minimum wage, for land reform and for the introduction of a progressive income tax.
The support given by the communists to the bourgeoisie’s “progressive” faction would cost them dear: it would need only the Popular Reform Association’s modest proposal to distribute a limited amount of government land to individual peasant proprietors to bring the big landed proprietors and bourgeoisie back into a common front against the reformists, who were accused of wishing to introduce radical land reform and of being communists in disguise.
«A series of strikes in March and April over questions of pay and conditions of work were taken up by those reformists who wanted to put on a show of defiance against their growing exclusion. However, this only hardened the lines of conflict. Hikmat Sulaiman showed his own authoritarian preferences by using police to end the strikes, arresting some of the organisers and sending others into internal exile» (Tripp, p.92).On 12 July 1937, the Popular Reform Association was suppressed, and numerous high-ranking communists were arrested, expelled from Iraq, or forced to flee abroad. From then until 1946 all party political action was made illegal.
A few decades later, after the Iraqi proletariat had suffered several bloody defeats, the Stalinist Aldo Agosti would comment on these tragic events in his Storia dell’Internazionale Comunista (Vol II, book 2, p.927):
«The orientation given by the Comintern to the action of the Arabic communist parties also had a positive effect in Iraq, where the coup d’ètat of the military progressives in October 1936 was, after some hesitation, resolutely supported by the small communist party, which had an important role in mobilising the masses by posing land reform and the nationalisation of industry as objectives. The Popular Reform Association, which took over the reins of government, in some ways resembled a real popular front, and the experiment was followed in the Comintern press with much hope and interest. But by June 1937, deep conflict had already emerged in the new leadership between moderates and revolutionaries, and the left-wing elements, including the communists, were expelled from the government and forced on to the offensive».Nothing here about the bourgeoisie’s repressive action, not a word of criticism against the suicidal tactic the Comintern imposed on the young Iraqi party, which was forced to tail behind the bourgeoisie and renounce its defining features.
Our current’s organ at the time was Bilan, and in its Autumn 1937 issue we find a rather more lucid interpretation:
«Centrism – it wrote – evidently sees the nationalist movements as very important and invites their representatives to its “anti-imperialist” congresses. However, it is indisputable that the Wafd in Egypt, the Arab Executive Committee in Palestine, the National ‘bloc’ in Syria and the Destour (nationalist party) in Tunisia are always prepared to come to terms with imperialism. And when they have headed violent protests, they have done so with the aim of putting a break on them and preventing them from being resolving in a class way. For both foreign imperialism and for the privileged Arab classes, the enemy is the same: the exploited masses seeking an outlet. The great revolt in Morocco in 1924-26 (Abd-el-Krim), in Syria in 1925, the movement in Palestine in 1929 and 1936, the protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt, rather than being the work of nationalists are expressions of the masses’ discontent about being doubly exploited. And less still are they anything to do with the “red hand” of Moscow (...)By 1937, despite all the repression, a ‘communist’ cell had already re-formed in Baghdad, and in January 1938 Yusuf Salman Yusuf, a militant who had been out to Moscow in 1935 where he had attended the party schools, would become a member.
«Clearly there are communist parties in the Middle East, at least in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and in French North Africa, but they are all very weak numerically and are being subjected to the most ruthless repression by ‘democratic’ France and England. Their internal history has been shaped by the ‘arabization’ demanded by Moscow, which means, in short, their integration into the nationalist movement. Naturally they have their Trotskyist minorities, and we all know what that means».
In this period, the young party appears in line with traditional communism and internationalism: the war is imperialist and must be fought on both fronts; the party fights for Iraq to remain neutral and opposes the transit of English troops. This position, however, was dictated by the Kremlin, which after concluding the non-aggression pact with Hitlerite Germany on 23 August 1939 had, by the end of September, transformed it into an out and out pact of friendship. This forced the Communist International to ‘review’ the watchwords regarding the war, which was no longer a battle between democracy and fascism, as was maintained at the time of the Popular Fronts, defended just four years earlier at the 7th Congress of the C.I., but an ‘imperialist war’.
This new about-turn in the orientation of the Communist International was made official in an article by Dimitrov and in the appeal for the 22nd anniversary of the October revolution in November 1939, in which the war is defined as “unjust, reactionary and imperialist” and is presented as the fruit of rivalry between the great powers for colonies and for control of the sources of raw materials, for domination of the maritime routes and for the exploitation of other peoples. The responsibility for the war is no longer attributed to Nazi Germany but to the English and French imperialists.
«In this situation – wrote Dimitrov in his article – there is only one correct position: a courageous and uncompromising struggle against the imperialist war, a struggle against those responsible and the agents of this war, primarily in their own respective countries, a struggle to put an end to this brigandish war».Fine. A pity that these were just empty words, given that the policies of the International weren’t intended to save the proletariat from the terrible experience of a new even more devastating imperialist war, by preparing it to transform the war into a class war, but rather designed to support Moscow’s complex diplomatic manoeuvrings.
The small group that formed the Iraqi Communist Party was strong enough
in December 1940 to form a “Central Committee” and launch its own newspaper,
Spark, and although to begin with the latter only had a circulation
of 90 copies this would rise to 2,000 within the space of two years. But
the reconstituted party had initiated its task at a particularly difficult
moment, for the second imperialist conflict was now in full swing, and
the Middle-East would be one of the principal theatres of war.
Iraq in the Second World War
The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 led to a consolidation of Britain’s grip on Iraq. London asked the Iraqi government to sever diplomatic relations with Germany, to intern all German citizens present in Iraq and to assist the English army in every way possible. King Ghazi, who had barely disguised his hostility to British policy in the Middle East, had died in a car accident in April 1939 leaving the three-year old King Feisal II as his successor. Prince ?Abd al-Ilah, who was far more tolerant of British pressure, would be nominated regent.
Meanwhile a series of Coup d’ètat’s had led to sectors of the modernist bourgeoisie being expelled from the government and to a reinforcement of the power of the military hierarchies. The government was led by Nuri al-Sa?id, who had already demonstrated his political gifts, and loyalty to British interests, by repressing the strike of the summer of 1931.
«As the war in Europe unfolded, bringing with it a succession of German victories, Italy’s entry into the war and the fall of France, opinion within the cabinet and in Iraq became more clearly divided between those who believed that Iraq should do what it could to assist the Allied cause and those who believed this would be fatal for Iraq’s interests» (Tripp, p.101).Gathered around the so-called “Golden Square”, a faction within the military hierarchy, convinced of the imminent victory of the Axis powers and intolerant of English pressure, forced Nuri al-Sa’id to resign and to flee to Transjordan, with the regent, whilst divisions of the Iraqi army occupied Baghdad. A government of national defence was formed presided over by Rashid ‘Ali al-Kailani, with the aim of “safeguarding the integrity and security of the country”.
Despite the new government’s attempts to reassure Great Britain that it would respect its obligations under the treaty, London refused to recognise it, and decided to test its intentions by requesting permission to immediately land troops at Basra. Faced with the temporising attitude of the Iraqi government, British troop landings went ahead without awaiting Iraqi authorisation. The Iraqi government responded by ordering units to take up positions overlooking the British air base at Habbaniyya and, on May 2, the base commander ordered his forces to attack them. The ‘thirty day war’ had begun. The communists supported the new regime, which obtained diplomatic recognition from Russia. There was great popular excitement. The communists awaited arms from Russia, which needless to say never arrived. The government meanwhile suspended the constitution and rights of political and trade union association.
Despite the popular mobilisation, the English would easily gain the upper hand over the Iraqi army. From the South, English troop reinforcements from India worked their way up towards Basra, whilst from the West, the Arab Legion (a Bedouin force trained by English army officers) headed out from the secure base in Transjordan to attack the key strategic and oil bearing zone of Rutba. It was a race against time to head off the possibility of Germany and Italy intervening on Iraq’s behalf (the German operation in Crete had got underway on May 20) but only a few planes would get through to al-Kailani. On May 31, 1941, the prime minister was overthrown in a Coup d’ètat inspired by the pro-British prince regent ?Abd al-Ilah. On the 1st of June, English troops occupied Baghdad.
On June 22, 1941, Germany mounted its surprise attack on Russia. This event, for which Russia was totally unprepared, prompted it to impose a sudden change of policy on the communist parties: those states newly allied with the USSR became ‘democratic’ again, and every action against them, and their colonies, would have to stop. The Iraqi Communist Party found this a particularly bitter pill to swallow, and it is not until November that we read in ones of its documents:
«If the English government were to seek the support of the great masses, alleviating the bitter crisis they have been caught up in (...) then free and enlightened Arab youth, followed by the vast Arab masses, will also take up arms and fight for the democratic front that is also our front (...) With the entry into the war of the Soviet Union and the Chinese Republic and as a consequence of the attitude taken by the American and English people, the hostilities have lost their imperialist character (...) The war is now a war of humanity as a whole since on its outcome the destiny of every nation depends (...) The war is therefore our war and we must take up our post before the democratic and free peoples».It was not until May 1942 that the Iraqi PC’s newspaper would fully endorse Moscow’s positions, affirming that:
«Our party sees the English army, which is now fighting nazism, as an army of liberation (...) we are on the English side (...) we must therefore help the English army in whatever way possible»,which, as far as the Iraqi workers were concerned, meant the CP siding with the monarchists and rich landowners who ruled the country.
In the six years between the party’s foundation and its reconstitution in 1940-41, a profound change had come about. Subjection to the policies of the Russian state would become the determining factor in the elaboration of the party’s policies and directives, and a marked moderation in its watchwords would take the place of the revolutionary thrust – even if it was sometimes ingenuous – of the first generation of communists.
On October 29 1941, the police arrested Abdallah Mas’ud, the most
prominent leader of the reconstituted communist group. Yusuf Salam Yusuf
would replace him as the party’s secretary general, and under his leadership
the Iraqi communist party would increasingly fall into line with the directives
imposed by Moscow and become a mass party, establishing itself over the
next seven years as the most important political force in Iraq.
The post-war period
After the country’s military occupation by the British army, and the regent’s return to Baghdad with the troop of politicians who had accompanied him in his flight to Transjordan, political life in Iraq resumed much as before. Reinstated as head of government, Nuri al-Sa?id, true to his usual methods, would immediately embark on a radical purge of the armed forces and various branches of the public administration.
Nuri’s policy of outright repression nonetheless put him at loggerheads with a section of the dominant class, who believed reforms were needed to prevent the social situation from worsening.
Even the regent
«began to voice his own concerns about the lack of social and economic reform and of political freedoms. Although not publicly broadcast, the regent’s views were known to the political elite and at the British Embassy, where there was growing apprehension about the explosive consequences of Nuri’s repressive and conservative regime» (Tripp, p.112).The reconstruction of the CP under Yusuf Salam Yusuf (“Comrade Fahd”) had brought about a total centralisation of the party structure and all criticism of the secretary general was rejected. This caused numerous disagreements, leading in August 1942 to the expulsion of a first group of militants who would go on to publish their own newspaper, Forwards. In November of the same year there would be an out and out split leading to the formation of two Iraqi CP’s: one under the leadership of Abdallah Mas’ud, recently released from prison, whose organ was The Spark, and the other, led by Fahd, with The Base as their organ. After both organisations had been severely weakened following a wave of arrests, the warring groups reunited and published the newspaper United Struggle.
A central demand of all the scissionist groups was that the ICP should hold a congress to establish statutory rules to govern the party’s internal functioning. Fahd was opposed to this demand since
«under present international conditions the holding of a clandestine conference of communists in countries adhering to the democratic camp might provoke conflict between communists and the authorities that are in nobody’s interests, nor are they in the interests of the peoples fighting against fascism».Fahd’s CP, along with every other Stalinist party in the semi or fully industrialised countries, would devote itself from the beginning of 1944 to organising industrial workers with the aim of preventing the from becoming trade-unionised on a class basis. The Stalinists formed clandestine cells firstly in Baghdad and then in the rest of the country, drawing into the party leadership intellectuals drawn from the poorest elements of the petty bourgeoisie (the so-called “people’s intelligentsia”) and eventually convoking a party conference in March 1944, followed by a first congress in March 1945.
The conference adopted a party “National Charter”, which combined patriotic and democratic positions with a social-democratic program within which workers’ demands were restricted to those of a legalitarian and trade-unionist type. No more socialist outlook, no more republic, no abolition of the Anglo-Iraqi treaty (which established Great Britain’s de facto power over Iraq), just the call for a revision of a few of its clauses; no demand to expropriate the big landowners and foreign capitalists; no more Arab unity; and no more independence for the Kurdish people (a demand now held to be reactionary and in the interests of imperialism). The struggle was supposedly at the “stage” of “national liberation and the struggle for democratic rights”, and the objectives mustn’t conflict with the phase of the “national bourgeois revolution”.
It nevertheless deserves to be recognised that the policy propounded by Moscow at the time, and adopted by the Syrian CP, which even went as far as dissolving itself, was never welcomed by the Iraqi CP, which in fact always strenuously opposed it, and which had entered into fierce polemics with the “liquidators”, who in Iraq as well had made themselves the interpreters of this line.
From January 1944, in deference of course to orders from Moscow, which was getting ready to break with yesterday’s allies, the leadership of the ICP initiated a new turn to show that support for the English army and the government was terminated or was being terminated.
Naturally the reasons for opposing the government or its English overlords were not in short supply. The ICP’s new line was introduced gradually, involving first a denunciation of the cost of living, then in April 1945 a major attack on the English presence in Iraq.
The new Iraqi government, under al-Suwaidi, in charge since February 1947, put an end to martial law, closed down the al-Faw prison camp, lifted press censorship and introduced a new electoral law to allow greater representation in the urban areas where the population was in rapid expansion. The new government also allowed political parties to be formed again. Along with the National Democratic Party, which was nationalist with social-democratic tendencies, and the Independent Party, with pan-Arabic tendencies, two small socialist parties were also recognised; on the other hand, despite the moderation of its political program, the ICP’s application to constitute itself as the National Liberation Party was rejected.
The new freedom to associate and issue political propaganda allowed trenchant criticisms of the country’s social and economic conditions to be advanced.
«Against a background of mounting social and economic grievances, some born out of the long-term structural inequalities of Iraqi society and many out of the immediate concerns of people who had seen the cost of living outstrip their wages, the activities of the opposition parties and of the newly recognised trades unions seemed to promise a period of escalating social protest. Strikes were organised at Basra port and unrest continued among the workers of the Iraqi railways whose union had been banned the previous year following the strikes of April 1945.The ICP took an active part in organising strikes and despite the illegality of the party it seems that communists controlled at 12 of the 16 legally recognised trades unions. The most important ones coincided with the heaviest concentrations of workers: the port of Basra, the railways and the oil extraction industry. In these three sectors the rate of unionisation was between 30 and 60 % and all the main leaders belonged to the ICP. The first, massive wave of strikes in these three sectors (never time limited, always ‘to the bitter end’ and lasting several weeks) took place between April 1945 and May 1947 The demands were for wage increases, legalisation of the trades unions and for true national independence – opposing the English presence in Iraq.
«The economic conditions of many ordinary Iraqis had deteriorated markedly during the previous five years. Wartime shortages, bad harvests and the increased purchasing power of the British forces stationed in Iraq had dramatically forced up the prices of most commodities, affecting foodstuffs and clothing most of all. There had, consequently, been a fivefold increase in the cost of living, hitting salaried employees, whether government officials or industrial workers, hardest, especially since this had not been matched by any corresponding increase in their wages. The spiralling price of cereals (by this stage Iraq’s main export), not simply in Iraq but throughout the region, had encouraged landlords and merchants to profit from the export opportunities this offered. This not only added to the inflationary pressures within Iraq by creating scarcity, but, in some parts of the country, particularly in the Kurdish regions, created real hardship, amounting to starvation. The strikes organised during these months of relative freedom were almost all aimed at securing wage increases and better conditions for the workers concerned» (Tripp, pp., 115-16).
«For the British, who had a strategic interest in the major industrial sectors of transport and oil, strikes of this kind and the unions that promoted them seemed to be part of a more general assault. Our party sees the English army, which is now fighting nazism, as an army of liberation (...) we are on the English side (...) we must therefore help the English army in whatever way possible», (Tripp.p.117).Many representatives of the Iraqi ruling class even saw them as the prelude to social revolution. The government and the English therefore responded by conceding wage increases, but also by dissolving the unions after the strikes, arresting the workers’ leaders and persecuting the communists. Fahd himself was arrested in February 1947 (but not identified as the secretary general of the ICP) and condemned to death (later commuted to life imprisonment after numerous international protests).
‘The Leap’, the Revolt of 1948
Following the signing of the Portsmouth Treaty between Iraq and Great Britain in January 1948, the Iraqi regime was hit by another serious crisis: in Baghdad there was the most formidable mass insurrection in the history of the monarchy, known as al-Wathbah – or The Leap.
It all started with student demonstrations on January 4, which had been called to protest against the projected new Anglo-Iraqi treaty and its endorsement of Britain’s continued ‘protection’ of Iraq. Over the days that followed the marches continued, with various incidents taking place, and more widespread protests after the announcement of the signing of the treaty on January 15; a treaty which although anticipating the withdrawal of all British forces from Iraq nevertheless formally sanctioned British influence in Iraq for a further 25 years.
All the opposition parties sought to mobilise public opinion against the treaty. On January 20th and 21st the railway workers and Baghdad factory workers, the unemployed and the mass of peasants recently moved to the city, all took to the streets. The police aimed to halt the demonstrators, who were armed with sticks, by shooting to kill, but it wasn’t enough to halt the protest marches despite numerous casualties. «The atmosphere which enveloped Baghdad was scented with social revolution» was how the historian Batatu described those days.
The ICP, which was yet to become republican, embarked on a polemic against “extremist sectors”, who took part in the demonstrations marching under banners calling for the fall of the monarchy and for a republic.
Despite the regent refusing to ratify the treaty, the demonstrations were not called off. On the 23rd there was a massive demonstration, and another one on the 27th; the government decided to break the mass movement by force of arms. The police fired continuously and indiscriminately into the crowd to disperse the demonstrations. The death toll was between 300 and 400 demonstrators, but the marching started up again and faced with their advance the police decided to totally withdraw from the streets.
The prime minister fled to Great Britain. A new government was formed. The new head of government, the Shi?i Muhammed al-Sadr, promised new elections, but it wasn’t enough.
Throughout the country there began a period of continuous mobilisations that would last until Spring, with important strikes taking place in the railways in March and May (after the union was outlawed in April 1945, the ICP organised the workers and the strikes); in the oil pumping stations in April and May (including the legendary workers’ strike at the K3 station near Haditha, with the “great march” of 3,000 workers on Baghdad) and at the port of Basra. There was also a peasant’s revolt at Arbat led by the communists. The demands put forward by the workers were for wage increases, for “bread and shoes”, democratic rights, the release of political prisoners, and for national independence.
The response, as in 1945-47, was a banning of the workers’ organisations, arrest of the trade-union leaders, and in exchange for that a partial acceptance of the wage claims.
The revolt greatly bolstered the growing influence of the ICP, which nevertheless continued to support the “national democratic government” of the Iraqi bourgeoisie. The demonstrations ceased only in May 1948 when the government proclaimed martial law, using the outbreak of the war in Palestine as the pretext.
Defeat in this war, which Iraq had participated in by despatching a few thousand troops, would bring about the fall of the government in January 1949. The accusations made by the Egyptian government, which blamed the defeat on the Iraqi forces and its lack of action, provoked serious disorder, mainly in Baghdad; the regent thus called once again on his faithful executioner, Nuri al-Sa?id, to head the government. Those accused of instigating the disorder were subjected to court martials and hundreds of people were thrown into prison. Those who paid the highest price were the communists who, yet again, would pay with the blood of hundreds of militants for acquiescing in Moscow’s policies.
The ICP’s acceptance of the line dictated by Moscow, which approved the division of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel and which was finalised only on July 6, 1948, after seven months of resistance, provoked great bewilderment and general demoralisation in the party, and hundreds of militants would abandon it in disgust. The state’s repressive apparatus, profiting from this situation, would arrest hundreds of communists in the latter months of 1948. The government, having discovered Fahd’s role as secretary general, subjected him to a public hanging in February 1949 along with two of his comrades. Membership of the ICP plummeted from 4,000 to just a few hundred militants.
The process of rebuilding the party happened slowly. It had got underway by June 1949 but not until the Autumn of 1951 could the crisis be said to be over.
Thus was the ICP able to participate in – and take a leading role – in the wave of strikes of the Spring and Autumn of 1952, which culminated in the revolt of November 22-24 of that year, when in Baghdad and other cities there were mass demonstrations calling for civil rights and democratic and free elections. The government responded exclusively with force of arms and declared martial law. All parties were declared illegal (although the ICP was permanently illegal in any case) and their leaders arrested. However, as soon as martial law was lifted in the following year, a new wave of strikes spread across the country and in Basra the government imposed martial law again in January 1954. In June 1954, with Nuri al-Sa?id again in power, every party, cultural club, trade union and even vaguely liberal-leaning newspaper was outlawed.
In these years the ICP experienced a ‘swing to the left’ with the adoption of a new “National Charter” in March 1953, to replace the 1944 one, in which was posed the objective of «a popular democratic republic which represents the will of the workers, the peasantry, and the popular masses», and the recognition of the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination, up to the point of secession.
This provoked the expulsion of 73 members of the party who opposed the new ‘National Charter’ in the name of the old positions of Fahd. These would then proceed to set up their own organ, The Workers Banner.
Over the months which followed the party would call for a “popular revolution”, with “the conquest of power by the proletariat (...) as the immediate task”, to be attained through the construction of a “popular revolutionary army”, which “is to practise the armed struggle”, setting up “revolutionary strongholds” throughout the country. It was a line that assumed its most bombastic tone between June 1954 and June 1955, with a party of a mere 500 militants supposedly to accomplish it all.
In June 1955, this line was repudiated by the Central Committee and of the “extremist” positions adopted since 1953 were rejected.
In 1955 there is the signing of an arms agreement between the USSR and the ‘Free Officers’ in Egypt, who, in a coup d’ètat three years earlier, had overthrown the monarchy. It is a change that almost immediately leads the ICP to embrace the cause of pan-Arabism, which was being championed by the Egyptian leaders. This line is further reinforced in July 1956 when, following the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Egypt is attacked by an English-French-Israeli coalition. The line is made official at the Party’s 2nd conference, held in September 1956.
But all in all, this was a short-term policy incapable of withstanding the impact of the 1958 revolution. For the ICP, «the immediate task is formation of a patriotic government that will put an end to Iraq’s isolation from the Arabic liberation movement and follow an independent and Arabic patriotic policy».
The drawing up of the Baghdad Pact – entered into against Russia and Arab nationalism, under American supervision, and whose signatories included Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan – and the subsequent attack on Egypt by Israel, supported by Great Britain and France, provoked a wave of protests and revolts throughout Iraq, centred this time in the more peripheral areas of Mosul, Kirkuk and Basra, and in Najaf and Havy where the protests became out and out insurrections. The government responded, as usual, with military repression.
It was during this new wave of rebellion that the “United National Front” was formed, which brought together the ICP, the national Democratic Party (the party of the anti-monarchist and Iraqi nationalist bourgeoisie), the Ba’th (or ‘renaissance’ party, formed in the early 50s under the pan-arabist banner) and some other groups. Its platform advocated political and economic independence, the abolition of the Baghdad Pact, the destruction of the iqta agrarian system, democratic rights, civil liberties and Arabic solidarity against imperialism and Zionism.
Apart from the brief “extremist” period between 1953 to 1955, the strategic perspective of the Iraqi CP during remained consistently social-democratic over these years, as indeed it would later. According to the historian Samira Haj,
«whilst the ICP’s theoretical positions endorsed the class struggle and internationalism, the party’s policies in practice were constantly compromised by the doctrine of the revolution in two stages (...) The party saw the anti-colonial struggle in Iraq as part of an inevitable evolving process which would lead to the national bourgeois revolution. The party saw its central role as providing leadership to the “oppressed classes” (workers and peasantry) in alliance with the progressive fraction of the national “bourgeoisie”, in order to forge the liberation struggle, accomplish social reforms and extend democratic rights within the framework of a bourgeois state (...) This dogmatic position of a “democratic bourgeois” stage of separate development proved dangerous to the ICP, to its cadres and to the national revolution itself. To abide by these principles the ICP was obliged to subordinate class conflict to the national struggle (...) by supporting Iraqi nationalism as opposed to pan-Arab nationalism (...) and make the assumption that there actually was a “national bourgeoisie” capable of achieving [the agrarian revolution]. The ICP didn’t recognise the intrinsic weakness of the Iraqi bourgeoisie and the strict links which tied this group to agrarian structures».Even with this strategic orientation, and despite the conditions of illegality and clandestinity to which it was permanently condemned, the ICP nevertheless managed to take on a central role in Iraqi political life. But if during the terrible period of the struggle against the monarchy the social-democratic line could only partially hinder the party from taking root within the working class, in the period of national revolution, the enslavement of the party to the bourgeois national movement would spell catastrophe, and – in the absence of an alternative workers’ leadership – spell catastrophe for the entire workers’ movement as well.
The normalization of “democratic” government has been put into operation in the six counties of Ulster. The “Peace Process”, the result of much pressure from Washington, is now in full swing. The solution is modeled on the “peace deal” in South Africa, where the power of the black majority replaced minority white rule and the black bourgeoisie assumed the reins of government in order to stabilize society and protect the future interests of capitalism in Southern Africa. The brutal racist rule of the white minority in South Africa had been ditched for a more up-to-date “democratic” state in which the interests of all sections of the bourgeoisie are protected, irrespective of colour, religion, etc.
After many decades of conflict in the six counties-which although often referred to as Ulster are in reality only those parts of Ulster retained by British rule after the partition of Ireland in 1921-far-sighted sections of the British ruling class came to realize that a purely military solution was not sustainable. A political solution had to be sought, one which has taken fifteen years in the making.
The year 1992 brought two developments which would condition the new approach to the internal pacification of Northern Ireland. In that year the Secret Service (M I 5), then in the full flush of ‘openness’, took over internal anti-terrorism duties, while the military units in Northern Ireland (including the Ulster Defence Regiment) were combined into a “locally recruited” and based Royal Irish Regiment.
At the time of writing (beginning of September 2007) the Peace Accord
in Northern Ireland is being used by Washington to set an example to other
countries of how religious differences can be settled (although more often
than not, these differences are actively encouraged as a way of stifling
working class consciousness). There has been much coverage in the media
about Trimble and McGuinness from Northern Ireland attending the meetings
between Sunni and Shia muslims from Iraq in order to lecture them about
how communities can live together peacefully. If different Christian sects
can live together peacefully why shouldn’t the different currents of
Islam live side by side?
Irish “Independence”, with England’s blessing
It would be underestimating the instruments of Britain’s control over Ireland to think they are incompatible with an independent Irish Government, provided it is compatible with Home Rule, that is, with its own government and parliament but still under the tutelage of the government of her Britannic Majesty. On this point the different factions of the English ruling classes seem to be in general agreement.
But that has not always been the case. In the 19th century the failure of Gladstone’s proposal for Home Rule, made in the hope that Parnell could deliver a suitable Anglo Irish deal, showed that there were elements within the British ruling class back then who would do anything to sabotage the notion of Irish Home Rule
A Further proposal for Home Rule, this time in the Twentieth century, was opposed by the Carson revolt, with the Protestants signing a Covenant of resistance to being forced into a Home Rule Ireland. Despite Churchill being prepared to sail the British fleet to Belfast in 1912 to shell it in to submission (as he would have done to Liverpool if the strikes of 1911 had really got out of hand) the Carsonite resistance was too widespread, and too entrenched in the British ruling class to be put down by force.
As far as the Irish attempting to win total Independence, or at least Home Rule, has been concerned (and the difference between the two goals has been a bitter bone of contention between Irish nationalists), many different strategies have been tried out over the years to loosen Britain’s grip on Ireland. Short of outright rebellion, so often bloodily repressed, two different but over-lapping approaches have been applied – these are the “stepping stones”, and “England’s Adversity is Ireland’s Opportunity” strategies.
The “stepping stones” approach is exemplified by Arthur Griffiths’ plea to Michael Collins, in 1921, to settle for any form of Irish Independence, even if it meant Partition, leaving full Independence to be achieved piece-meal over successive decades. Although this view prevailed it prompted bitter resistance and caused the Civil War in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State, in which the newly independent Dublin Government imposed its rule on recalcitrant Irish nationalists. The “stepping stoners” have been traditionally vilified as traitors to the cause of Irish Independence.
The other approach, of “England’s Adversity is Ireland’s Opportunity”, is a very traditional one, and in practice involves looking for backing from England’s enemies, especially in times of war. The problem with such an approach is that whilst gaining such support might lead to a nuisance being created in England’s back-yard, it was never of sufficient strength to achieve Independence for Ireland. Have England’s foes the economic and military means to impose defeats upon London? Is it in the interests of England’s current foe to back Independence for Ireland? That has been the problem with the “opportunist” approach. And yet historically England has had plenty of enemies, Spain and Russia to name just two. But England’s strategy regarding Europe has always been to pull down the strongest power (first Spain, then France and later Germany) by forging alliances with other European countries: thus the fate of Ireland was sealed, because none of the England’s successive adversaries were strong enough to decisively defeat it, and its navy which dominated the sea.
Initially Irish nationalists looked to fellow catholic countries, such as Spain and France, to deliver them from English rule. The famous Spanish Armada, however, was destroyed in the English Channel and forced into an ignominious return to Spain. In any case the object of Spanish concern was to reverse the religious domination of Protestantism in England, and if it had restored catholic rule in London, it would also have maintained English rule over Ireland.
As to France as a catholic sympathiser, it would never translate into any real support for Irish independence, because to do so would mean having to break the British navy’s control over the seas around Ireland and possibly conquer the British isles themselves. Not even the posturing by Napoleon Bonaparte, with the gathering of French troops for a projected invasion of England, would lead to any serious attempt to invade Ireland. The logistics of gathering and maintaining an invasion force, which required at least temporary control of the seas around Ireland, and the lack of capacity to defeat any English military forces sent to confront the invader, doomed any plans that Paris may have had.
England’s domination of the British Isles, and of its other colonies
spread throughout the world, came originally from its mercantile development.
But what secured continuing English domination was the industrial revolution,
along with the immense wealth and resources that resulted from it. The
wealth from industry merged with the historically hide-bound attitudes
of the aristocracy to produce a fierce opponent of any progress in Ireland.
Indeed the English aristocracy preferred to see the Irish people starve
to death, or be scattered across continents as a supply of cheap labour,
rather than pose a threat to their aristocratic ‘right’ to own Irish
Marx and Engels on the Irish Question
Marx and Engels studied the history and oppression of the Irish people by England in great depth. Their conclusions can be shown in the letter from Marx to Meyer & Vogt in New York, dated April 9, 1870:
«Ireland is the bulwark of the English landed aristocracy. The exploitation of that country is not only one of the main sources of their material wealth; it is their greatest moral strength. They, in fact, represent the domination of England over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the cardinal means by which the English aristocracy maintain their domination in England itself.Marx then goes on to show how the great Irish emigration was used to divide English and Irish proletarians into two hostile camps, a strategy the British ruling class used to ruthless effect.
«If, on the other hand, the English army and police were to be withdrawn from Ireland tomorrow, you would at once have an agrarian revolution in Ireland. But the downfall of the English aristocracy in Ireland implies and has as a necessary consequence its downfall in England. And this would provide the preliminary condition for the proletarian revolution in England. The destruction of the English landed aristocracy in Ireland is an infinitely easier operation than in England herself, because in Ireland the land question has been up to now the exclusive form of the social question because it is a question of existence, of life and death, for the immense majority of the Irish people, and because it is at the same time inseparable from the national question. Quite apart from the fact that the Irish character is more passionate and revolutionary than that of the English.
«As for the English bourgeoisie, it has in the first place a common interest with the English aristocracy in turning Ireland into mere pasture land which provides the English market with meat and wool at the cheapest possible prices. It is likewise interested in reducing the Irish population by eviction and forcible emigration, to such a small number that English capital (capital invested in land leased for farming) can function there with “security”. It has the same interest in clearing the estates of Ireland as it had in the clearing of the agricultural districts of England and Scotland. The £6,000-10,000 absentee-landlord and other Irish revenues which at present flow annually to London have also to be taken into account.
«But the English bourgeoisie has also much more important interests in the present economy of Ireland. Owing to the constantly increasing concentration of leaseholds, Ireland constantly sends her own surplus to the English labour market, and thus forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class».
«But the evil does not stop here. It continues across the ocean. The antagonism between Englishmen and Irishmen is the hidden basis of the conflict between the United States and England. It makes an honest and serious co-operation between the working classes of the two countries impossible. It enables the governments of both countries, whenever they think fit, to break the edge off the social conflict by their mutual bullying, and, in case of need, by war between the two countries.Here we see clearly the unfolding strategy of Marx and Engels with regards to trying to push forward the proletarian revolution in the only country then ripe for socialism. Whatever could be done to weaken the ruling class in Britain and open the road for a workers’ revolution should be done. Marx and Engels saw Ireland like a dagger pointed at the heart of the English ruling order. It would have been remiss of them not to have pursued such a strategy. As Marx pointed out in the quotation above, the object of gaining independence for Ireland was not for its own sake, but as part of the process of overcoming capitalism as a social system.
«England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation».
For all the endeavours of Marx and Engels with regards to Ireland, the workers’ movement was not capable of challenging British capitalism’s grip over that country. What sealed Ireland’s fate was that there was not a sufficiently developed Irish capitalist class capable of leading the struggle for national Independence. So much of the bourgeoisie in Ireland was either part of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, or so much in the pockets of the British ruling class that it was not in their interests to struggle for national independence.
The Act of Union in 1801 had removed the protectionist measures Irish agriculture and trade had hitherto enjoyed, and those who survived were effectively integrated into the British market. This explains the U-turn of the Protestant bourgeoisie, which changed from being prime movers in the United Irishmen revolt at the end of the 18th century, to bastions of English rule over Ireland. This left only the land question, and the mass of poor farmers who would be the basis for revolts against English rule. And they were effectively on their own as far as the Irish catholic bourgeoisie was concerned. That is why Ireland was not able to progress at that time forward to a national bourgeois revolution, and it is the root cause of the historical impotence of the Irish bourgeoisie.
Not only was Ireland not able to conduct its own national bourgeois revolution but, due to the grip Britain had on its development, it got left behind. The profits extracted from agriculture and trade passed directly into the pockets of the British ruling class, helping to fuel the industrial revolution and the expansion of the British Empire. Ireland, And specifically its labouring population, was being sucked dry.
However the industrial revolution in Britain was a historically important event: it may have doomed the prospect of Irish national sovereign independence, but it also created a working class in Ireland, and so opened the prospect for socialism for the workers of Ireland, as in every other country.
Nationalism, is part of the programme of the bourgeoisie in its fight against the localism of feudalism, and in a general sense is important insofar as an internal market is created, and a framework created within which it can organise its affairs and effectively exploit the proletariat. Historically, the proletariat supports this battle, insofar as it was also in its interest to combat feudalism.
The question is, how does one view Irish nationalism, in its various phases, leading up to, and after, this historic goal was accomplished. When, for instance, the English proletariat went behind the industrial bourgeoisie to fight for reform in 1832, it wasn’t in the name of nationalism, but of supporting its own interests in alliance with the industrial bourgeoisie against the landed bourgeoisie.
In Ireland, in 1916, were there really feudal interests to overthrow, or was it this same battle between the landed and industrial bourgeoisie being fought out? Or was it a case of an indigenous Irish bourgeoisie, with capitalism already established, not wishing to share its ‘zone of plunder’ with its English counterparts? In this case, the position communists have to take is as follows: outside Ireland, no support from communists to ‘their own’ bourgeoisie against the independence movement of the Irish bourgeoisie. Inside Ireland, on the other hand, where capitalist forms predominate, Communists have the duty to urge the Irish proletariat not to allow itself be diverted into supporting the aims of its enemy class, of its indigenous bourgeoisie, but instead to fight its own battle, against its own, and every other bourgeoisie.
The key questions to ask, therefore, are: at what stage is capitalism during the various phases of the independence movement, and what were the prospects for the proletariat, in its various component parts and various relationships with different sections of the rural population, namely, the agricultural labourer living by wages alone; the small peasant; the middle peasant; and the large landlord, the latter class composed of both indigenous but largely ‘foreign’ (English) elements.
In Ireland the crucial question is when could the Irish proletariat have hoped to benefit from supporting its national bourgeoisie (although, as Marx argued, even during these phases, it is important for the proletariat to maintain its own political identity, by way of its class party) and at what point were its interests best served by withdrawing its support altogether?
Whatever conclusions one reaches on that score, one can safely say that the working class in Northern Ireland in recent history has had nothing to gain from supporting a nationalist cause. In Northern Ireland there is a working class that has been split into two factions to defend the rival claims of the Irish and English bourgeoisies to be the dominant exploiters there. All class anger there has been misdirected into either defending Irish nationalism or into the most sickening patriotic defence of ‘the right to remain English’; the material basis for which is that one section of the working class, the protestant, defends certain privileges, due to its historical connections with the English nation, against another, the catholic.
If Ulster does eventually become independent, or at least develop some form of clear State administration, even if through some complicated power sharing arrangement between the two nations, it will be a step forwards in terms of healing the division in the Northern Irish working class. And the more a sense of working class identity is developed, the more the goal of working class emancipation will loom, in all its international complexity. But this, of course, has been ignored by many so-called Irish socialists, who cannot see much further than the national question, since they tend to see national independence ahistorically. Since they fail to distinguish between when it is a historically progressive demand, as it was in the period of capitalism’s ascent, and when it serves merely as cover for rival bourgeois interests, they persist in continuing to put it forward as an aim which the proletariat must support because it is allegedly ‘a pre-requisite for historical development’. This was a dilemma that James Connolly came to so much grief over.
* * *
Modern history can be characterised as a rather complex matter, which defies simplified categorisation. Civilisations, emerging out of pre-history, record the progress of societies, some being quicker than others in the development and decline. They are relatively easy to imagine, with homogenous ruling elites (which from time to time absorb rising economic strata, or migrating communities) who lord it over the slaves / peasants who do all the work.
The rising stars of societies, who make it because of inherited wealth, trade and/or plunder, take up their places within the ruling elites and thereby strengthen the ruling order. That is not to deny the fierce rivalries, hacking and butchery, as well as bile and denunciation dispensed by the bucket-load, which is what passed for politics within the various ancient property owning-classes in history. That is in fact the way all property-owning classes function.
“Modern” society is rather different, in that the continuing development of the economy in the last millennium or so has been through a series of progressions, from feudalism, through mercantile society to the latest (according to Marxism, the last) industrial capitalism (a real night-mare). The various forms of property have been converted into landed, commercial, financial and industrial capital, all readily converted from one to the other through that wonderful lubricant, money! But the economy just does function on its own – it needs the state to protect and ensure its continuous development, including its future.
Because there are conflicting interests within and between the different
forms of capital so there are fundamental divisions between and within
political parties over proposed changes to capitalist society. What at
one time would appear to be extremely radical, capable of “shaking the
foundations of society”, a few decades/generation afterwards may seem
more acceptable, even advisable, while later still can appear to be old
hat. The needs of capitalist society change, through that hallowed procedure
called reform. However necessary reforms are needed long-term for the future
of capitalism, in the immediate situation the most vicious fights will
take place, threatening to tear society apart. Reforms are often left until
their time has come, or pushed through in violent conflict, the conservative
forces either being roundly defeated, or carried off to the sanatorium
(for their own, and society’s, sake). As with all the bally-ho over bourgeois
political fights the actors take to the stage, strut about making a noise,
and are bundled off with the discarded props. Thus it was with the various
British proposals for Home Rule in Ireland.
(Part 2 - part
1 in Communist Left 21/22)
In the first part of our investigation into the genesis of the Marxist approach to the trade unions, we undertook a brief survey of Marx’s early work from the time of his editorship of the Rheinische Zeitung up to his exile in Paris, and we commented, albeit very briefly, on his intellectual development as he made the transition from radical Hegelianism to communist materialism.
During this same period, Marx’s future lifelong collaborator, Friedrich
Engels, was beating a parallel path through the maze of radical Hegelian
ideas, and indeed the two men, even before they first met, were already
exerting a reciprocal influence upon each other through their respective
writings in the radical press. But before their historic collaboration
formally commenced in August 1844, Engels, like Marx, would make a significant,
and lasting, contribution to the development of the Communist programme.
6. THE ‘YOUNG HEGELIAN’ ENGELS
Engels came from a family of wealthy cotton manufacturers in Barmen, in the Rhineland, and was brought into the family firm at the age of 17, a year before he was due to take his school diploma. With a university education denied him, he would soon turn to journalism as an intellectual and creative outlet, and proceed to settle accounts with his religious upbringing. Even as early as 1839, at the very start of his commercial apprenticeship in Bremen, he was observing the appalling conditions of the German working classes and the ideological use of religion against them. With his Pietist father presumably squarely in his sights, he railed against the «pietists amongst the factory owners [who] treat their workers worst of all; [who] use every possible means to reduce the workers’ wages on the pretext of depriving them of the opportunity to get drunk, yet at the election of preachers (...) are always the first to bribe the people».
Engels was already commenting on the appalling conditions in the factories and the «work in low rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen – and in the majority of cases beginning already at the age of six» (Letters from Wuppertal, March and April 1839).
Engel’s increasing involvement in social issues, combined with a keen interest in poetry and literature, would soon lead him to the writings of “Shelley, the genius, the prophet”. And Engels must surely have identified with this anarchist rebel who was expelled from Oxford university for sending atheistic pamphlets to bishops. As Engels translated Shelley’s Queen Mab, he would find himself moving beyond his earlier preoccupations with religion and seeking a political solution to the social ills that he had observed.
As Engel’s time at Bremen came to an end, and with a reputation as a political and religious heretic already established, a return to the parental home was something to be avoided. With his military service looming, and given an already deep-seated interest in military matters gleaned from his childhood years sat at the feet of Napoleonic war veterans, his problem was solved by volunteering for the Brigade of Artillery, and he took up his posting in Berlin in 1841.
Soon he linked up with the Freien group, ‘The Free’, who, faced with a tightening up of the censorship laws and the expulsion of many of their leading lights from their professorships in the German universities, were being forced to question their notion of a slow and peaceful permeation of revolutionary ideas. The time had come to protest, and protest they did, by means of colourful processions, student pranks and a type of militant individualism which irresistibly brings to mind today’s cringingly petty-bourgeois protests.
Indeed Marx himself had partaken in such activities as a student, and participated in “donkey parades” in Bonn with Bruno Bauer, but having seen their ineffectiveness first-hand, he felt no compunction about condemning such “guttersnipe antics”. No doubt Engels got swept along in this movement as well, but he would concentrate his protests on taking on the pillars of the academic establishment. But as yet, to Engels, Marx was still just a legendary figure of the anti-establishment, who in a poem of April, 1842, he would describe as:
«A swarthy chap of Trier, a marked monstrosity.
«He neither hops nor skips, but moves in leaps and bounds,
«Raving aloud. As if to seize and then pull down
«To Earth the spacious tent of Heaven up on high».
At the end of his military service in Berlin in September 1842, Engels claimed to be an atheist in religion but in politics indeterminate. Soon that would change. On his way back to his family home in Barmen, he would stay in Cologne and meet Moses Hess, one of the first socialists (or communists) in Germany, and an initiator and contributor to the Rheinische Zeitung. According to Hess’s own account, Engel would make a lightning conversion to the tenets of ‘true socialism’, as expounded in his book, the European Triarchy, which held that revolution was imminent, and that it would be the role of England to synthesise, by a new kind of revolution, the German Reformation and the French Revolution. Fired with these ideas, His father’s proposal that he go to England to complete his apprenticeship in the family firm’s Manchester branch met with little protest as it meant that he had an opportunity to participate in the forthcoming revolution first-hand.
By this time, Engels was also a regular contributor to the Rheinische
Zeitung, with seventeen articles and sketches to his name published
between April and December, 1842, contributing considerably to the revolutionary-democratic
tone which the paper would acquire under Marx’s editorship from the autumn
of 1842. The two men would meet face to face for the first time in late
October, 1842, when Engels visited the newspaper office on his way to take
up his appointment in England, but the meeting was not a great success
as Marx was still suspicious of someone who he saw tarred with the Freien
brush. It was nevertheless agreed that Engels would contribute articles
to the paper on English affairs.
7. ENGELS ARRIVES IN ENGLAND
In December, 1842, Engels arrived in Manchester after spending a brief period in London. In his first few weeks, he would almost certainly have worked at the mill in Weaste to learn the manufacturing side of the business. But soon he moved to the warehouse and office situated in Southgate, where his knowledge of languages and continental contacts found ready use.
From here, it was but ten minutes to the Owenite Hall of Science, where he would soon find himself actively participating in the debates and discussions. «At First – he said – one cannot get over one’s surprise at hearing in the Hall of Science the most ordinary workers speaking with a clear understanding on political, religious and social affairs... I saw the Communist Hall, which holds about 3,000 people, crowded every Sunday» (MECW,vol 3, p,387).
In late 1843, Engels would make his first contribution to the Owenite New Moral World, and one can follow Engels testing the notion of ‘building the new society within the old’ in a number of writings in which he undertook a thorough study of utopian communities old and new. He would also get to know the leaders of the Chartist movement and the League of the Just, but even as regards the latter organisation, in which the germs of the future Communist Party lay dormant, he would still not make a firm commitment ‘for I still owned, as against their narrow-minded egalitarian communism, a goodish dose of just as narrow-minded philosophical arrogance’.
Meanwhile he had been undertaking an intense study of English economy
and conditions which would bear fruit in the article Outlines of a critique
of Political Economy, published in 1844 in the Deutsche-Franzosiche
Jahrbucher along with Marx’s articles on the Jewish Question and
the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The Outlines
was an article which made a deep impression on Marx prompting him as late
as 1859 to describe it as “a brilliant outline of a critique of economic
categories”. If many of Engel’s writings may be described as coolly
analytical, in this article we see him sensing that he had found his life’s
work; and a shower of question and exclamation marks, signalling a million
questions to be answered and a million horrors to expose, mark his arrival
at the threshold of a new social and economic theory. Perhaps, in this
article’s power to concentrate Marx’s interest on the anatomy of capitalist
economy, it is from here that we can really date Marx and Engel’s mental,
if not actual, collaboration.
8. THE CONDITION OF THE WORKING CLASS IN ENGLAND
But Engel’s greatest priority during his first stay in England, and a task to which all his research of the period was ultimately subordinated, was his study of proletarian conditions which would bear magnificent fruit in his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England; a book which the founders of Marxism would consider as one of their few the pre-Communist manifesto works worthy of permanent preservation along with the Theses of Feuerbach and the Poverty of Philosophy.
In the preface to the first German Edition, Engels would explain that the book dealt with a subject which he originally intended to deal with in a single chapter of a more comprehensive work on the social history of England, but that the importance of the subject soon made it necessary to investigate it separately. In England proletarian conditions could be observed in their classical form, and «a knowledge of proletarian conditions is absolutely necessary to provide solid ground for socialist theories, on the one hand, and for judgements on their right to exist, on the other». This was especially the case for “German theoreticians”, amongst which he included himself, who had arrived at Communism by the purely theoretical route “of the Feuerbachian dissolution of Hegelian speculation”.
In late 1845, he would write in an article on the 1842 turnout, that
«readers of my book will remember that I was chiefly concerned to describe the position of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in relation to each other and the necessity of struggle between these two classes; and I attached especial importance to proving how completely justified the proletariat was in waging this struggle, and to rebutting the English bourgeoisie’s fine phrases by means of their ugly deeds. From the first page to the last, I was writing a bill of indictment against the English bourgeoisie».Thus, as distinct from the many partial studies that hitherto existed, Engels set out to provide a piece of writing which “takes up all the workers”, and in that very comprehensiveness, its examination of workers in their class context, would lie its revolutionary thrust.
The book is most famous for the numerous and detailed depictions of
grinding poverty and starvation; of squalid, crowded, broken-down dwellings;
of men, women and children chained to machines in noisy, dirty factories,
or crowded into concentration-camp-like workhouses; of mind-numbingly boring
work conducted in a dictatorial atmosphere of organised thievery. These
depictions indeed have such force that they have even been incorporated
as original source material into bourgeois economic history and sociology
syllabuses. But here, needless to say, they are not used to condemn today’s
capitalism, but are hideously distorted into an illustration of how far
capitalism has progressed since those terrible early days. You workers!
– they see to be saying – Look at your situation then, and look at
it now! You workers and us capitalists, now we both have a decent
living standard to defend against foreigners and the unemployed! Our reposte
to this largely implied, rather than directly stated, insinuation we will
deal with later on when we come to examine the Marxist theses on the creation
of the labour aristocracy. But suffice to say that if workers’ conditions
are looked at on a historical and global scale, especially in those countries
where insurgent capitalisms are struggling to compete with the long established
nations of the West; if we consider not just the “good” years but also
the long years of crises and recession, the impact of Engels’ description
of working class conditions still operate as a powerful call to revolution.
9. THE CREATION OF THE INDUSTRIAL WORKING CLASS
In Lenin’s words, Engels ‘was amongst the first to say that the proletariat is not only a class that suffers; that it is precisely its shameful economic situation which irresistibly drives it forward, and obliges it to struggle for its final emancipation’. It is that struggle that really interests us here.
Engels’ makes a very pithy, depiction of the genesis of this struggling class, from its origins in a largely rural economy to one based on large-scale machine production.
Before the industrial revolution there is mainly self-sufficient cottage industry: the weaver and his family spin and weave and farm their small-holding, and have abundant time to take part in healthy country pursuits. The invention of the spinning jenny, with its 16-18 spindles to the one of the spinning wheel, produces a shortage of weavers. To take advantage of this opportunity, a class of property-less full-time weavers arises which, without even the “pretended property of a holding”, become proletarianised. The spinning and weaving which had traditionally been carried on under the same roof thus became separated, and so «began that division of labour which has since been so infinitely perfected».
Single capitalists now found they could undercut the lone spinner by setting up Jennies in great buildings powered by water power, a process which was given further impulse by the development of Arkwright’s spinning throstle in 1767. This invention, which Engels considered, next to the steam-engine, the most important mechanical invention of the eighteenth century, would further extend the encroaching factory system since it was designed specifically to be powered by mechanical motive power. The steam-engine itself, invented in 1764 by James Watt, would in its turn revolutionise that motive power. In 1804, the recently invented Cartwright’s power loom, specially adapted to steam power, was successfully competing with the handloom weavers. The only way the latter could now compete with the machinery was by working themselves virtually to death, creating a situation in which these same weavers would figure in the annals of the English working class movement as one of its most embittered and militant sections.
But the dispossessed weavers were not the only element who would go on to make up the new rapidly expanding proletarian class. Engels also refers to elements from the peasantry, proletarianised due to competition from capitalist farmers, and to those who had previously been employed in the old handicrafts system, whose masters and apprentices would see come in their place great capitalists and working-men who had no prospect of rising above their class. They would see handwork increasingly carried on after the fashion of factory work, the division of labour would be strictly applied, and
«small employers who could not compete with great establishments were forced down into the proletariat. At the same time the destruction of the former organisation of handwork, and the disappearance of the lower middle-class deprived the working-man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself. Hitherto he had always had the prospect of establishing himself somewhere as master artificer, perhaps employing journeymen and apprentices; but now, when master artificers were crowded out by manufacturers, when large capital had become necessary for carrying on work independently, the working-class became, for the first time, an integral permanent class of the population, whereas it had formerly often been merely a transition leading to the bourgeoisie. Now he who was born to toil had no other prospect than that of remaining a toiler all his life. Now, for the first time, therefore, the proletarian was in a position to undertake an independent movement».The sheer concentration of proletarians in the industrial centres was enough to create a sense that though feeble as individuals, they formed a power united.
«The great cities are the birthplaces of labour movements; in them the workers first begin to reflect upon their own condition, and to struggle against it; in them the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie first made itself manifest; from them proceeded the Trades Unions, Chartism and Socialism».Meanwhile, the sheer scale of the new Manufactures in the great cities would destroy the last vestiges of patriarchal relations by making many employees dependent on a single employer. No longer could the bourgeois tyrannise over the working people,
«plunder them to his heart’s content, and yet receive obedience, gratitude and assent from these stupid people by bestowing a trifle of patronising friendliness which cost him nothing (...) Only when estranged from his employer, when convinced that the bond between employer and employee is the bond of pecuniary profit, when the sentimental bond between them, which stood not the slightest test, had wholly fallen away, then only did the worker begin to recognise his own interests, and develop independently; then only did he cease to be the slave of the bourgeoisie in his thoughts, feelings, and the expression of his will».This process of rising class consciousness was constantly fostered by the fact that what was of advantage to the bourgeoisie was, in so many cases, directly contrary to the interests of the working class. Most evidently in the very fact that the worker was condemned to work.
«As voluntary, productive activity is the highest enjoyment known to us, as is compulsory toil the most cruel, degrading punishment. Nothing is more terrible than being constrained to do some one thing every day from morning until night against ones will (...) once more the worker must choose, must either surrender himself to his fate, become a ‘good’ workman, heed ‘faithfully’ the interests of the bourgeoisie, in which case he must certainly become a brute, or else he must rebel, fight for his manhood to the last, and thus he can only do in the fight against the bourgeoisie».And then there were those without any work at all. Engels saw that the capitalists needed
«at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of workers, in order to be able to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months. This reserve army is larger or smaller, according as the state of the market occasions the employment of a larger or smaller proportion of its members».And the resulting state of beggary and destitution Engels describes in all its stark detail.
This reserve army, also swelled by those replaced by machinery, and
from the waves of settlers arriving from Ireland, would put the question
of the competition of proletarians amongst themselves firmly on the agenda.
This would result in both an enhanced class consciousness on the one hand,
and a narrow trade corporatism on the other. But in the workers’ battle
for better wages and better living standards, the sharpest weapon which
the bourgeoisie could deploy against the workers was, nevertheless, their
competition amongst themselves for jobs. «Hence the effort of the workers
to nullify the competition by associations, hence the hatred of the bourgeoisie
towards these associations and its triumph in every defeat which befalls
10. THE TRADE UNIONS
So finally, like the hero-narrator of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, who fails in the first two volumes to even get himself born, we finally arrive at our main topic: the trade unions.
The revolt of the workers began soon after the first industrial development, and has passed through several phases: «The earliest, crudest and least fruitful form of this rebellion was crime». It is resorted to largely by the unemployed workers amongst the ‘surplus’ population who have «courage and passion enough openly to resist society, to reply with declared war upon the bourgeoisie to the disguised war which the bourgeoisie wages upon him», but it is an individual rather than a class response. «As a class they first manifested opposition to the bourgeoisie when they resisted the introduction of machinery at the very beginning of the industrial period. The first inventors, Arkwright and others, were persecuted in this way and their machines destroyed». This Luddite form of opposition was directed however only against one feature of the new system, and «a new form of opposition had to be found».
«At this point help came in the shape of a law enacted by the old, unreformed, oligarchic-Tory parliament, a law which could never have passed the House of Commons later, when the Reform Bill had legally sanctioned the distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat, and made the bourgeoisie the ruling class. This was enacted in 1824, and repealed all laws by which coalitions between working-men for labour purposes had hitherto been forbidden. The working-men obtained a right previously restricted to the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, the right of free association».Engels goes on to say that secret coalitions had existed earlier but «could never achieve great results. In fact it was the very fact of their secrecy which “crippled their growth”. After the 1824 law was passed, these combinations were very soon spread over all England and attained great power. In all branches of industry Trades Unions were formed with the outspoken intention of protecting the single working-man against the tyranny and neglect of the bourgeoisie».
«To attain these ends, a President and a Secretary are engaged at a salary (since it is to be expected that no manufacturer will employ such persons), and a committee collects the weekly contributions and watches over their expenditure for the purposes of the association. When it proved possible and advantageous, the various trades of single districts united in a federation and held delegate conventions at set times. The attempt has been made in single cases to united the workers of one branch over all England in one great Union; and several times (in 1830 for the first time) to form one universal trades association for the whole United Kingdom, with a separate organisation for each trade. These associations, however, never held together long, and were seldom realized even for the moment, since an exceptionally universal excitement is necessary to make such a federation possible and effective».The Trade Unions are heavily restricted by bourgeois legislation, and their lawful powers are very weak
«when there are workers outside the Union, or when members separate from it for the sake of the momentary advantage offered by the bourgeoisie. Especially in the case of partial strikes can the manufacturer readily secure recruits from these black sheep (who are known as knobsticks), and render fruitless the efforts of the united workers. Knobsticks are usually threatened, insulted, beaten, or otherwise maltreated by the members of the Union; intimidated, in short, in every way. Prosecution follows, and as the law-abiding bourgeoisie has the power in its own hands, the force of the Union is broke almost every time by the first unlawful act, the first judicial procedure against its members.Several important points are raised in this passage. To begin with, it is noted that the Unions are largely impotent operating within the restraints set by Capitalism’s laws of supply and demand of labour. This is why they are far more effective when they find themselves impelled to protest against reductions in standards of living even when labour is not in short supply; when the advantage is not with the capitalist, and they are thereby able to compete on equal terms under the terms of this same law. But when there is a surplus of labour, their protest thus comes up against the central rock of the mercantile system itself, and it is in such cases that Trade Unionism, per se, comes up against its limitations. «The active resistance of the English working-man has its effect in holding the money-greed of the bourgeoisie within certain limits, and keeping alive the opposition of the workers to the social and political omnipotence of the bourgeoisie, while it compels the admission that something more is needed than Trades Unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class».
«The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalist among themselves. But in dealing with minor, single influences they are powerful. If the employer had no concentrated, collective opposition to expect, he would in his own interest gradually reduce wages to a lower and lower point; indeed, the battle of competition which he has to wage against his fellow-manufacturers would force him to do so, and wages would soon reach the minimum. But this competition of the manufacturers among themselves is, under average conditions, somewhat restricted by the opposition of the working-men.
«Every manufacturer knows that the consequence of a reduction not justified by conditions to which his competitors are also subjected would be a strike (...) Then, too, the Unions often bring about a more rapid increase of wages after a crisis than would otherwise follow. For the manufacturer’s interest is to delay raising wages until forced by competition, but now the working-men demand an increased wage as soon as the market improves, and they can carry that point, by reason of the smaller supply of workers at his command under such circumstances. But, for resistance to more considerable forces which influence the labour,market, the Unions are powerless. In such cases hunger gradually drives the strikers to resume work on any terms, and when once a few have begun, the force of the Union is broken, because these few knobsticks, with the reserve supply of goods in the market, enable the bourgeoisie to overcome the worst effects of the interruption of business. The funds of the Union are soon exhausted by the great numbers requiring relief, the credit which the shopkeepers give at high interests is withdrawn after a time, and want compels the working-man to place himself once more under the yoke of the bourgeoisie. But strikes end disastrously for the workers mostly, because the manufacturers, in their own interests (which has, be it said, become their interests only through the resistance of the workers), are obliged to avoid all useless reductions, while the workers feel in every reduction imposed by the state of trade a deterioration of their condition, against which they must defend themselves as far as in them lies.
«It will be asked, ‘Why, then, do the workers strike in such cases, when the uselessness of such measures is so evident?’ Simply because they must protest against every reduction, even if dictated by necessity; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings; because silence on their part would be a recognition of these conditions, an admission of the bourgeoisie to exploit the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones».
11. THE TRADES UNIONS AND THE WORKING CLASS PARTY
It is insofar as the Unions contribute to this growing sense of class consciousness that Engels attributes importance to them. «They are the military schools of the working-men in which they prepare themselves for the great struggle which cannot be avoided; they are the pronunciamentos of single branches of industry that these too have joined the labour movement (...) And as schools of war the Unions are unexcelled».
But left to their own devices, union struggles tend to remain isolated, restricted within particular sectors. A giant step forward is taken, therefore, when different sections link up, but «if the fight became general, this was scarcely by the intention of the working-men; or when it did happen intentionally, Chartism was at the bottom of it. But in Chartism it is the whole working-class which arises against the bourgeoisie, and attacks first of all, the political power, the legislative rampart with which the bourgeoisie surrounds itself».
The crucial point being made is that trade-unionism becomes more and more of a threat to the system itself the more it oversteps narrow, trade concerns, and links with other sections of the working class. And that for this wider perspective to impinge into the workers’ consciousness, a political leadership is required; a political leadership which Engels is already implying – and it is an observation usually associated with Lenin – as having to be imported into the trade-union movement from without. Only if the Trade-unions subordinate their partial struggles to a struggle against the capitalist social will they be able to achieve anything other than short-term, partial gains for their members.
The failure of the 1842 turnout was due to workers not having clear goals, to it not being an “intentional working-men’s insurrection”. Without this consciousness of their own goals, the strikers instead became deployed by the liberal bourgeoisie ‘to wave a stick at the Tories’, and assumed the role of troops quartered upon the enemy as part of the anti corn law agitation against the landed aristocracy.
The main lesson which was drawn out from the 1842 turnout was therefore one of class interests, since «The fruit of the uprising was the decisive separation of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie». At the Birmingham National Convention in 1843, the radical bourgeoisie would split off from the Chartist movement leaving the Chartist working-men to espouse «with redoubled zeal all the struggles of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie».
«The ‘Six Points’ which for the radical bourgeois are the beginning and end of the matter, which are meant, at the utmost, to call forth certain further reforms of the Constitution, are for the proletarian a mere means to further ends” and «although their socialism is very little developed (...) yet the measures they propose «involve the alternative that they must either succumb to the power of competition once more and restore the old state of things, or they must entirely overcome competition and abolish it”. On the other hand the present indefinite state of Chartism, the separation from the purely political [‘political’ meant in a purely parliamentary sense] party, involves that precisely the characteristic feature, its social aspect, will have to be further developed».Engels then proceeds to give a detailed criticism of Chartism and Socialism as they existed at the time, seeing that the ultimate question to resolve for all the various forces existing in the working class movement was an effective scientific explanation and description of working class problems and the organisational and theoretical means to resolve them.
There is much else in Engels book that we could have referred to; notably descriptions of the living conditions and organisations of the miners and the agricultural proletariat, but we have aimed to concentrate on those passages where Engels, as a pioneering social investigator, sets in place those keystones of a Marxist, Communist approach to the Unions which remain largely unchanged to this day, and which have contributed to a general, theoretical approach to the Unions.
Let us briefly resume the most important points raised:
Without the concentrated, collective influence of the Unions, individual capitalists would be forced to lower wages in order to compete with other capitalists.
The power of the unions is significant within particular sectors at particular times, and is enhanced when demand for labour is high.
The Unions are powerless against all great forces which affect the supply and demand in the labour market.
The Unions have a tendency to remain isolated within their individual sectors; they only tend to concentrate their forces in times of general agitation.
The Unions are the military schools in which the workers, although unaware of it, prepare themselves for the great struggle which lies ahead: a struggle in which they will negate their existence as a wage-earning class.
The Unions will be indispensable levers in the struggle of the working class as a whole to conquer its maximum political objectives, but this will entail an heightened political and class consciousness which will be brought into the Union movement, from outside, by the working class political party.
In the 1892 introduction to ‘The Conditions’, Engels would say.
Modest as ever, that he considered the book not a mature Marxism, but rather
‘one of the phases of its embryonic development’, but he makes few
amendments to his view of the unions; in fact the historical update of
the Trade unions he provides merely bears out what he had written in 1844;
that the trade-union struggle, isolated from the fight against capitalism
is doomed to failure. This key point, rammed home so effectively in Engel’s
book, serves to this day as a searing indictment of all later theories,
which seek to sanctify the official seperation of the working-class,
organised in the trades unions, from their class political party.
As presented at the September and May 2004 party meetings.
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3 - 4 )
The Consequences of the War
In the South things weren’t going too well either. Even before the war two thirds of the whites didn’t own slaves, and the economic situation of most of these ‘poor whites’, even when not on the threshold of poverty, was certainly far from prosperous. They didn’t therefore share the enthusiasm for the war about to spread through southern society, especially amongst the planters. In fact, in the more hilly and mountainous regions of the interior there was widespread disagreement, which in the case of West Virginia would lead to secession; but there were other analogous situations in East Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri, all of them states which would eventually provide significant numbers of volunteers also to the Unionist army as well. These were the yeoman farmers, small proprietors working their own land who weren’t interested in the planters’ demands, but whose own political weight was negligible. Their discontent would steadily increase during the war, due both to food shortages and to forced conscription: the rule that allowed the rich not to fight also existed in the South, owner or overseers of more than twenty slaves having the right to an exemption. These small peasants formed the backbone of Lee’s army, but, although initially enthusiastic, their willingness to fight would dwindle as their thoughts turned to their families labouring in the fields without their help, as the horrors of war appeared on their own doorsteps. In fact the areas where the yeomanry were most widespread (eastern central Tennessee, North Virginia, the hilly regions of north Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi) would be those most devastated by the federal armies.
In 1863 there were therefore revolts against conscription and food riots in the South too. Another decisive factor in the concluding phase of the war was the crippling level of desertion undermining the confederate army. Out of the 100,000 deserters which abandoned it during the 4 years of war most belonged to the yeomanry; and the figure would be higher still if those failing to report for military service were taken into account. By January 1st 1865, over half the confederate soldiers were absent without leave.
It is calculated that the human cost in terms of loss of life was over 365,000 for the North and over 320,000 for the South. In a country of about 30,000,000 inhabitants 700,000 dead was a considerable amount; to this must be added around another half a million wounded and disabled. And yet these figures, enormous though they are, fail to give an accurate impression of the real devastation wrought, and the suffering experienced by the people on both sides.
Obviously it was in the South that the harshest revolutionizing would occur. Apart from the incalculable damage the region had suffered in a direct sense, its entire world had fallen apart. The ruination and radical defeat of the class of southern planters was even more drastic than that suffered by nobles and clergy at the time of the French Revolution. In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination the victors would impose a Carthaginian peace: the emancipation of the slaves was immediate, total and without indemnity and the class of planters, large and small, found themselves deprived not only of their entire workforce but with more or less their entire capital expropriated as well. The portion of capital invested in land had undergone immense destruction and major confiscations during the war. Contemporaneously, with a stroke of the pen, the public debt and the confederate currency were erased.
But the real victory for the capitalist North was to have a free hand in the economic field. The southerners had always been the main obstacle in the way of the stringent economic protectionism required to make the great mass of consumers pay the costs of the industrial revolution. The protective tariff would thus be raised to unprecedented levels. The 1864 Tarif Act raised excise duties on the total of taxable merchandise from 19.67% in 1860 to 47.56% in 1865. The victory of financial interests was also assured when in 1864 a new law established a powerful central banking system.
The South was politically, militarily and economically on its knees. The destruction it had suffered was appalling. Apart from all the cities and towns razed to the ground, the thousands of miles of uprooted railway track, the hundreds of bridges, railway stations and private and public buildings blown up or burnt down, there were the neglected roads, irrigation works and forests and immense stretches of abandoned farmland, which had been reduced by 18%. Zootechnical property was reduced in the South with equines down by 31%, cattle by 35%, sheep by 20% and pigs by 42%. And the serious lack of forage meant re-establishing pre-war levels was prevented. The South had been reduced to colonial status, and the conditions resulting from the war would maintain it in a position of under-development for many decades to come. Naturally this also applied to the southern manufacturing industry, which was maybe the Confederacy’s weakest point at the start of the war.
But it would be a mistake to think that the initially disadvantageous conditions or the tightening of the blockade caused the confederates to relapse into resigned fatalism. In fact the most challenging task which confronted the confederate government was precisely that of creating a productive apparatus from scratch which would meet the requirements of the war, and, given the starting position, there was only one way forward: forced industrialisation. Since the capitalist road, founded on free initiative, was not possible, because most capital was tied up in the countryside, mainly in slaves, and couldn’t be imported either, the only road left was based on public ownership of the means of production and on forced saving, one which some historians have defined as “socialist”.
This was achieved by means of three instruments: submission of all existing
manufactures to the most stringent public control (the government ordaining
what was produced, allocating raw materials, railway transportation, labour
power, and even freezing profits, to the extent that at a certain point
the owners of the most important steelworks offered to formally hand over
their enterprises to the State); nationalisation of as many establishments
as possible; and finally, the outright creation of a powerful state industrial
sector which, towards the end of the conflict, constituted a structure
which incorporated virtually the whole of the confederate industrial apparatus.
The North’s War
If the South would end up devastated by the war, in the North it meant unprecedented prosperity. The railroad companies did very well out of it, due both to job orders from the military and the closing of the Mississippi which would divert the flow of trade along an East-West axis; the meat packing industry did very well out of it: Chicago, the city of the railroad and the big slaughterhouses experienced a prodigious growth during this period. But it was boom time for all of the sectors linked to the war, such as agriculture (which compensated for the loss of manpower with increased mechanisation and a further push to the West) and the clothing industry, which although it benefitted the honest also allowed sidereal earnings to the dishonest, like those who manufactured items using shoddy, that is, with reprocessed wool waste which was often simply just recompressed. Union soldiers would soon learn this to their cost, when their uniforms, which appeared composed of normal material, would literally melt in the rain. Swindling the state is, of course, a very common phenomenon, especially during the general chaos of the war when it is very easy to get round the regulations, especially if a few officials are bribed here and there. So, whilst the war was used on the one hand to infuse proletarians with patriotic ideals, on the other it was just another opportunity for the bourgeoisie to do business, whether legal or illegal, with friends or enemies, the main thing being to turn a profit.
The country came out of the war significantly changed and greater changes
were ahead. The emergent industrial bourgeoisie was fiercely nationalist
and republican; Congress adopted economic policies that were strongly expansionist:
a national paper money was born, a central banking system, and an enormous
public debt. Funds were raised by putting new tariffs and taxes on practically
everything produced and consumed. Workers killed in the war were rapidly
replaced thanks to incentives to immigrate. The Homestead Act gave free
land to the pioneers, everywhere technical and agricultural colleges were
founded. Huge swathes of land were gifted to the railroad companies to
build railways, allowing the penetration of capital towards the West. The
latter measure as good as condemned the prairie Indians to death, but whilst
it may be possible to stop armies no power on earth can stop capital in
its expansionist phase. If on the eve of the war the government was almost
impotent, now that industrial and financial capitalism was making itself
heard it entered a period of unprecedented activism, reflecting the true
birth of the North American state.
Marx and Engels’ stance
Our teachers would follow the progress of the war attentively, writing in particular detail about the first two years, when Marx made it the subject of his press correspondence. After which they would continue to discuss it in their letters.
Apart from the judgements on general and military matters already cited, the first thing one notes, particularly in the letters, is their passionate engagement with the war, in which, apertis verbis, they took the side of the North. Rather than the South being the victim of the North it is aggressively expansionist: Marx shows that it isn’t enough for slavery merely to survive, because its endemic features compel it to continually expand (“war of conquest”) stagnation equating with the death of its economic system. These two social systems simply aren’t able to co-exist; South and North aren’t, nor can they be, two autonomous countries: “The South isn’t a nation, it’s a battle cry”.
Both Marx and Engels complain of the North’s lamentable lack of revolutionary energy; they don’t give a damn, wrote Engels on 30 July, 1862, the government is hesitant about everything: conscription, fiscal measures, attacking slavery, and when some measure is passed, Lincoln hedges it about with so many clauses as to render it ineffective. And the generals, they are all incompetent. If the North doesn’t start a revolutionary war it won’t be able to win.
Marx is more optimistic: he recognises the political and military weaknesses of the North, which the South doesn’t have, but he knows that time is on the side of the North and that the situation will change. Even after the second battle of Bull Run, Marx, writing on 10 September, 1862, would advise Engels not to be too influenced by the military aspect of things. Certainly there should be a transition from the ‘constitutional’ to the ‘revolutionary’ phase, which for Marx and Engels consisted in the use of all available force against the representatives of the backward economic system. But an explicitly and completely revolutionary phase would be something that would never happen in North America; the bourgeoisie there would be born reactionary, as indeed was the case in Europe in the same century. Already their fear of the proletariat is intense, and the capitalists are torn between the desire to radically transform society and their fear of a working-class offensive, in this case including the black proletariat. Putting effective political and military instruments into the hands of the subordinate classes of North and of South is far too risky and would never be attempted, unless counterbalanced, that is, with such precautionary measures as to render them ineffective.
If the North had directed effort towards agitating amongst the blacks in the South and arming them where possible, both behind the lines and by enrolling blacks who had fled to the North, the war would have been over in a few months, and with negligible loss of human life. But who then would have prevented those hosts of armed men from reorganising the world as they thought fit? The bourgeoisie’s great fear, which would materialize a few years later during the Paris Commune, permeates the last two centuries as a constant and undeniable factor; a fear, moreover, which is entirely justified. For the bourgeois state, for all bourgeois states, any battle between interest groups, social classes or sovereign states can only take place after control over the subordinate and working classes is assured, or after these have been securely yoked up to one of contending war machines, which is tantamount to the same thing as they are no longer capable of fighting in their own interest. The black proletariat wasn’t allowed to fight in the front line for its liberation; instead it was allowed to send tens of thousands of its sons to die under the orders of white officers, with nothing given in exchange except vague hopes of a wealth that would never materialize, and an emancipation which would transform their condition in name only, without actually improving their living conditions; indeed, in the decades to come, they would actually get worse.
A ‘revolutionary’ war would, therefore, have been decisive in the early phases of the Civil War, but by 1863 the disparity of forces in the field is such that it is clear to all that the fall of the Confederacy is only a matter of time.
In the Autumn of 1862, thanks to a widespread feeling of opposition to the war, the republicans were trounced by the democrats in the legislative elections and their majority whittled down to a mere 20 seats. Engels was extremely disappointed: «Desirable though it may be, on the one hand, that the bourgeois republic should be utterly discredited in America too, so that in future it may never again be preached on its own merits, but only as a means towards, and a form of transition to, social revolution, it is, nevertheless, annoying that a rotten oligarchy, with a population only half as large, should evince such strength as the great fat, helpless democracy» (15 November 1862). Marx, however, recalling that the South was in a very difficult situation and that the democratic victory was the sort of reaction that occurred in every revolutionary movement, continued to remain optimistic. In fact it was probably mainly thanks to government intervention that the republicans retained their position. The democrats were in the majority in the Indiana and Illinois assemblies and it was only the intervention of the Union army – which proceeded to arrest some of the democratic party candidates – which made it possible for the republicans to remain in power in the border states like Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland. Lincoln also ordered the arrest of his likely adversary in the next presidential elections, the well-known Ohio Democrat, Clement L. Vallandingham, and later had him exiled to the Confederate territories. The bourgeoisie isn’t shocked by dictatorial measures, whether open or disguised, as long as they are enforced to protect its interests.
Marx and Engels denounce the European states for plotting to exploit the civil war for their own ends by means of an imperialist-financial undertaking in Mexico; the latter whilst the British working class was fighting generously for the cause of the North. In fact at the beginning of 1862 the English cotton barons, using the Trent incident as justification, petitioned for a campaign of British intervention on the side of the South with the aim of breaking the naval blockade. The English workers, although damaged by the cotton blockade, which had caused widespread unemployment in the textile industry, generously demonstrated in favour of the North, thus acting to deter the British bourgeoisie’s temptation to intervene.
The International would also make its voice heard, first sending a letter
of congratulation to Lincoln on his re-election in 1864 (which was acknowledged
with an official reply), then inviting Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson,
to complete the work of his predecessor – assassinated, as it was believed
then, by a southerner – by initiating the new era of the emancipation
The “Reconstruction” and its failure
The Civil War was the consequence of the fact that the ruling classes of American society were clearly divided into two sections.
In the great bourgeois revolutions the divisions within the ruling classes had allowed the radical tendencies of the lower strata to emerge, much more so in the case of the French Revolution than in the English. In the American Civil War there was no radical uprising of this kind. At least in its main outlines this is easy to understand: the American cities weren’t teeming with desperate artisans and potential sans-culottes. Class-consciousness and the organised power of proletarians were virtually non-existent and the existence of land to the West reduced its potential explosiveness. The necessary conditions for a peasant revolt were therefore also lacking. In the South, instead of peasants at the bottom of the pyramid there were black slaves; and these were in no condition to rebel, except in a sporadic and disorganised way. Despite slave insurrections having occurred, they didn’t have political consequences. No clear revolutionary impulse emerged from this direction, chiefly because their liberation hadn’t been of their own making. We have seen how fearfully, and with what cautiousness the two belligerents had consented to put weapons into the hands of a not too excessive number of blacks. Another obstacle in the way of a struggle directly led and organised by blacks was the profound ignorance in which they were kept. Thus were the ex-slaves pushed, empty handed, alone and defenceless, into the world outside the plantations.
After Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson, the vice-president who took his place, continued the work of reconciliation, composed of pardons and the reconstitution of the southern ruling class by reinstating most of the old dignitaries. Johnson nominated the governors of the ex rebel states and authorised them to convoke constituent assemblies, allowing to vote those who had taken the oath proposed by Lincoln: Loyalty to the United States and acceptance of the Proclamation of emancipation. Higher ranking confederate officials and the major property owners would have to be individually pardoned by the president. On the completion of this procedure, the states would again become part of the union.
Johnson was an ex-democratic senator from Tennessee, the only senator from the South to remain loyal to the Union. He had been against the southern landed aristocracy and it was therefore expected he would treat them with extreme severity; but he was also a virulent and declared racist, which would become evident when certain decisions had to be made. Lincoln had chosen him not only for electoral reasons but also to counterbalance the republican radicals; obviously the assassination hadn’t figured in his calculations. Johnson permitted the governors to surround themselves with prominent ex-secessionists, who he would readily pardon, and he allowed them to issue laws and regulations restricting the freedom of the recently emancipated blacks.
The so-called Black Codes, replacing the Slave Codes to which they bore
an astonishing likeness, aimed to tie the slaves to the plantations by
means of barely disguised forms of servitude. These codes limited the right
of blacks to own land, to acquire arms and to move around freely; they
imposed prohibitive taxes on anyone who wanted to engage in autonomous
activity, especially if non-agricultural; and they allowed the bosses to
take on the sons of ex slaves who proved to be ‘unsuitable’ parents
as ‘apprentices’. Blacks weren’t allowed to stand witness against
whites in court; if they abandoned work they could be thrown into prison
for breaking their contract; anyone found not to be working could be arrested
and fined 50 dollars. Those who couldn’t pay the fine could be hired
to anyone in the county who would pay the fine. Blacks could also be fined
for making insulting gestures, for not observing the curfew and for possession
of firearms. A personal control over blacks was established which was indistinguishable
from slavery. Despite the thirteenth amendment, which rendered slavery
unconstitutional, the South attempted to legally recreate it in all but
name. By the end of 1865 the ex-confederates were back in power and had
re-established their rule.
The missing agricultural reform
It was the capitalists in the North who launched the single progressive initiative. In the group known as the Republican Radicals abolitionist ideals merged with industrial interests to give life to a brief flame, albeit quickly extinguished in the rising tide of corruption.
Although the radicals were a thorn in Lincoln’s side during the war, he nevertheless managed to bring the war to a victorious military conclusion on the basis of the sole programme of safeguarding the existence of the Union, i.e., without conducting any serious offensive against property rights in the South. But for a brief period between 1865-68, the three years following the cessation of hostilities, the Republican radicals would hold power in the North and conduct an offensive against the plantation system and the remnants of slavery.
The leaders of the group considered the war as a struggle between the progressive capitalism of the North and a reactionary agrarian society based on slavery. But if the conflict between the North and the South really can be characterised in such a way, then the most important battles were fought after the war had ended. But capitalism was already in its cowardly and corrupt phase by now, incapable of seeing its revolution through to its conclusion. Thus it was in Italy and Germany, and thus will be the case in most bourgeois revolutions in the Third World: the bourgeoisie is subjected to pressure from external powers at the same time as it has guard itself in primis from its own working class. Thus it is forced to halt in mid-stream, camouflage itself (as in China), or sometimes even go into reverse gear.
Drawn from amongst the proponents of abolitionism and from the radicals of the Free Soil group, a small nucleus of republican politicians would interpret the war as an opportunity to «uproot the vestiges of a dying world of barons and serfs, nobles and slaves» in order to reconstitute the South according to the vision of the «progressive and democratic» North, founded on «Freedom of speech, on freedom of labour, on schools and ballot boxes». The leader of the Republican Radicals, Thaddeus Stevens, who expressed himself more cautiously in public, wrote in a letter that what the country needed was a leader (i.e. not Lincoln) «with sufficient moral courage to make of this a radical revolution, and to remodel our institutions (...) This would involve both the destruction and emancipation of society in the South, and the repopulation of half the continent».
But what really gave the impetus to this movement, taking it out of the realm of idle chatter, was that its objectives coincided with the interests of sectors of vital importance in Northern society, namely, the nascent iron and steel industry in Pennsylvania and a railroad company. Stevens, in his capacity as parliamentarian, would act as intermediary for both these groups and from each of them he received money. The radical Republicans also gained the support of many workers in the North, even if the latter were cool towards abolitionism, since they feared competition from the blacks. They considered the New England abolitionists as the hypocritical representatives of the factory owners, whilst they enthusiastically supported the radical’s protectionism and their deflationist programme. Finance and commerce, however, were unsympathetic towards the radicals. And after the war the radicals would turn to the ‘Northern plutocracy”.
The radicals’ offensive didn’t, however, represent a capitalist united front against the plantation system, and this explains its intrinsic weakness. At the time of its greatest strength it was a coalition of industrialists and a few railroad companies, supported by part of the working class.
In a speech on 18 December 1865, Stevens presented to public opinion and to Congress his analysis of the situation and his programme of action. The South had to be treated as a conquered country and not as a series of states that, after having left the Union, could be welcomed back with open arms. «The foundation of their institutions-political, municipal, and social-must be broken up and relaid, or all our blood and treasure have been spent in vain. This can only be done by treating and holding them as a conquered people». The southern states wouldn’t be allowed to return to the Union, Stevens stated, «until the Constitution shall have been so amended as to make it what its framers intended; and so as to secure perpetual ascendency to the party of the Union», that is, the Republican party. If the southern states were not ‘reconstructed’ – this euphemism of the time would continue to be used in all subsequent histories – it could easily submerge the North, said Stevens, and thereby the South would have won the peace after losing the war.
It was on the basis of these considerations that Stevens outlined his programme to reconstruct the society in the South from top to bottom, i.e., smashing the power of the plantation owners by confiscating all land of over 200 acres, «even if this might force the nobility (of the South) into exile». In this way the federal government would obtain enough land to give every black family around 40 acres; giving rise to the slogan “40 acres and a mule”, which was used to discredit the hopes, held to be utopian, of the recently liberated slaves.
The demand for a vast redistribution of land was born of the knowledge that it was the only way to break the power of the planters. Indeed the latter had already started to do all they could to recuperate by other means the substance of their lost power, something that was possible owing to the economic misery of the blacks.
There is persuasive evidence that the division of the old plantations
into smaller landholdings for the blacks was in fact a feasible proposition.
The North’s military authorities undertook two experiments of this type
to resolve the pressing problem of the thousands of blacks without means.
They transferred the confiscated and abandoned land across to more than
40,000 blacks, who it was thought would be able to successfully work the
land as small peasant farmers, until president Johnson returned the property
to their previous white proprietors. The experience of slavery was certainly
not the best in terms of preparing the blacks to manage enterprises as
small rural capitalists. There is little the blacks could have done for
themselves, or to favour of northern interests, without a minimum degree
of economic security and political rights, including the right to vote.
“Reconstruction” according to the Radicals
The radicals lashed out at Johnson’s leniency towards the South, and the return to home rule. There was a struggle in Congress that almost led to the impeachment of the president, who lost his ascendancy, whilst meanwhile Congress annulled everything and recommenced with its own version of Reconstruction. The first step was an inquiry into actual conditions in the South. The inquiry documented the existence of widespread poverty amongst the blacks as well as brutal oppression, intimidation and legal discrimination on the part of the whites. The committee conducted a detailed examination of the racial riots that had recently taken place in Memphis and New Orleans, resulting in many casualties. It concluded that in fact the New Orleans rebellion had been a police massacre in which dozens of blacks had been murdered in cold blood.
Congress abolished home rule in the southern States and divided the ex Confederation into 5 military districts. Even southern citizens who had already obtained a pardon would have to take a more rigorous oath before recovering their right to vote, and ex-confederate officials had the right withdrawn. The state conventions had to draw up new constitutions.
Reduced to its essentials, the radical programme of reconstruction of the South consisted of using the North’s military force to destroy the plantation aristocracy and replace it with a system of landed property that was modern and capitalist, and which ensured landed property and the right to vote to the blacks. Soon enough, thanks to economic dynamics themselves, masses of workers originally involved in extensive agriculture would end up in the industrial cities, providing the low price labour power ever required by the industrial bourgeoisie; the agricultural sector, meanwhile, would undergo an evolution dictated by the laws of the market. In a capitalist sense it was a revolutionary programme.
But in fact things weren’t going too badly for the northern industries in any case. Even taking into account the movement towards the West, the forces of labour arriving from Europe, who were much more qualified and educated than the blacks and easier to integrate, were, even if not sufficient in themselves, enough to cause divisions amongst the bourgeoisie. Thus even northerners who professed sympathy for the Negro Cause showed signs of weakening. In reply to Stevens speech of 6 September 1865, Horace Greely, director of the New York Tribune, wrote: «We object to the idea of fighting against southern property because the well-off classes in the South, since they are more human and enlightened than the ignorant strata of poor whites, are less hostile to the Negroes».
The fears of the N.Y. Tribune give us a hint of what would happen when the well-off classes of North and South had buried their differences and, in another famous compromise, had let the blacks go off and find out for themselves what to do with their freedom.
It is therefore not surprising that the radicals were defeated. Or rather, they weren’t defeated as such, but anything radical in their programme was defeated as soon as it came into conflict with the interests of the Northern proprietors. The radicals, against the wishes of the more moderate republicans, were unable to get confiscation of land inserted in the 1867 reconstruction laws. In the House of Representatives, Stevens’ “40 acres” gained a mere 37 votes. The more influential classes in the North were not about to tolerate a direct attack on property, even on rebel property, not even in the name of capitalist democracy and economic development. The Nation warned: «Dividing up land belonging to the rich amongst the landless would mean for our political and social system a trauma from which it would be unlikely to recover without loss of liberty». The failure of the agrarian reform was a decisive defeat that eliminated the most important part of the radical programme. Without the agrarian reform the rest of the programme added up to a collection of measures that were either palliative or irritating, according to one’s point of view.
This failure, which left the alliance between the white proprietors in the South and those in the rest of the country on its feet, is a reflection of the limited revolutionary impulse that existed in American society at that time.
Since the land wasn’t confiscated and redistributed, the plantation system gained a second lease of life thanks to the replacing of slave labour with new forms of labour. To begin with, wage labour was tried, but as a system it failed, at least in part because the blacks had the tendency to sign up for work during slack periods and make themselves scarce when the cotton harvest came around. The plantation owners therefore resorted to the share-cropping system, which allowed them far more control over the labour force. In areas where a peasant class had never previously existed, the change was a significant one.
An American characteristic of the situation derived from the figure of the country storekeeper, often a rich planter. By providing the tenant farmers and sharecroppers with various goods on credit, at vastly inflated prices, he was able to control their labour power. The tenant farmers and sharecroppers couldn’t buy things anywhere else, since, being short of ready cash, they had to acquire goods on credit. The landed proprietor’s share of the harvest was always so large that the sharecropper remained in perpetual debt, and the same went for the tenant farmers. In this way economic ties replaced for many blacks those of the slavery that had been suppressed. It is difficult to say to how much the situation of the blacks was improved by this change, even supposing it was an improvement. To compete the picture there were the firms that used convict labour; always blacks as chance would have it, and who had been incarcerated, mainly for insignificant transgressions, after a due process of law that was, of course, administered by whites.
Lenin defined the American south as «a closed, stagnant environment, without fresh air, a kind of prison for the “liberated” Negroes». Even in 1915 he stated that «the economic survivals of the slave system differ not one wit from the economic survivals of feudalism, and in the ex-slave regions of the South these survivals are still very evident even today».
The main effect of the change seems to have been turning the economy
of the South, insofar as it wasn’t already, into one based on a sole
product, with the bankers putting pressure on the planters, and the planters
on the sharecroppers, to cultivate products that could be rapidly converted
Political revival went hand in hand with economic revival, the one reinforcing the other. We won’t go into the contorted and contradictory political manoeuvrings which the successors of the groups that had held power in the South before the civil war resorted to in order to acquire political influence. Suffice it to mention that the scallawags, as southerners who switched over to serving the Union government after the war came to be known – or white collaborationists as we would call them today – included numerous planters, merchants and even captains of industry.
A major dose of violence served to remind the blacks ‘of their place’ and to re-establish white supremacy (‘home rule’). It is to this period that we can trace the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, which in fact was just one amongst a number of terrorist organisations to launch cowardly attacks on blacks, almost invariably unarmed and isolated, with the aim of steering them away from the ballot boxes. Even many of the carpetbaggers (officials who came from the North who were generally considered to be corrupt) were “persuaded” that going home was in their best interests.
In the meantime, railroad and industrial interests were acquiring growing influence in the South. In short, the moderates and the well-to-do would recover their power, their authority and their influence in the South, just like in the North. Even public opinion, certainly not determined by the blacks, was starting to tire of the constant climate of tension. The democrats in the South reconquered one state after another (in what, in debatable taste, they would call “Redemption”), until in 1876 only three, Louisiana, Florida and South Carolina, remained in the hands of the radicals. The terms of an alliance between these two groups in course of preparation; terms which would rise above the old line that had divided them during the war.
The 1876 elections would be the most violent and bitterly fought in the whole of American history. The democratic candidate, Samuel J. Tilden of New York, clearly established himself with a broad popular vote (even if tainted by the violence against blacks in the southern states). The Republicans however questioned the results in four States, twenty electoral votes; if all these votes had gone to the republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes, he would have been elected. Resistance came mainly from army veterans, who had no intention of accepting the latter result. It was even feared there might even be a new outbreak of war. Pessimists predicted it would be the last free election (and maybe they were right!). After a few months, a compromise was reached. The South would accept Hayes’ victory, on condition that, once in power, he would withdraw all federal troops from the South, nominate a southerner to his cabinet and allocate substantial funds for a programme of domestic improvement in the South. Hayes took office and the troops were duly withdrawn. Reconstruction was over, and it would mark the end of any serious effort to protect the constitutional rights of blacks. It would next come up for discussion again in the 1960s.
Thus did the party of property, wealth and privilege in the North finally abandon any claim to be supporting the rights of the oppressed class of black proletarians. Once the ex slave-owning “junkers” in the South had discovered the urban bourgeois in themselves, and the northern industrialists had found themselves dealing with radical protest from their own proletariat, the classic conservative coalition would become possible, and Thermidor would arrive to liquidate the “Second American Revolution”.
The industrial and financial bourgeoisie in the North had no need of
the blacks, and it was happy to leave them in the tender care of the ex-slaveowners.
After its attempt to change society into one in which all would adhere
to the pure liberal-democratic bourgeois model (even if it was never entirely
united in pursuit of this goal), it had been content to achieve the principal
aim of the civil war, that of maintaining the federation, and this was
the essential condition for a number of important reasons. In the first
place, the bourgeoisie was guaranteed a burgeoning domestic market of a
very respectable size which would guarantee it an outlet for goods that,
for now, weren’t competitive on the world market; also, it could be assured
of a pacified hinterland where it was possible to get rich speculating
on the immense possibilities opened up by the conquest of the West, which
was then still in progress; finally, it could turn its attention, confident
that its country was economically developed and militarily in a favourable
position, to whatever imperialist adventure presented itself. In fact in
1865, with war barely concluded, Grant, not yet in the running for the
presidential job, was already champing at the bit to invade Mexico, to
cross the Canadian frontier, and to occupy San Domingo; and it was he,
in that same year, who ordered Sherman to conduct an out and out campaign
of genocide against the native Americans.
By way of Conclusion
Only the proletarian revolution will be self-aware, and even then only as a collective awareness existing within the proletarian party for such consciousness certainly cannot be attributed to the thoughts and desires of the individual participants. Whether sudden or dispersed over a long period, all of the social upheavals, which we call revolutions, that have changed man’s economic relations in an enduring way, have occurred by virtue of a series of actions, determinations and conditions that have propelled huge numbers of people to act in a certain way, towards a certain end, such as to determine the revolutionary outcome; and sometimes the original causes were situated so long ago, or so far away, that even the instigators of the revolutionary action themselves were unaware of the real reasons they had acted as they did, or of the revolution’s real objectives. Often those who actually were aware of the real reasons didn’t take part in the action, as in the case of the big bourgeoisie in their revolution; although the latter would be good at providing plenty of bogus reasons to those who were forced to take action and risk their own lives.
The American Civil War had need of ideals as well, on both sides. In the North they fought for the liberation of the black slaves, a noble cause if ever there was one; and certainly there were those who sincerely wanted to help the blacks. And yet the condition of the black Americans, barring a few exceptions, would end up even worse than it had been under slavery.
The abolition of servitude in all its forms and the total freeing up of the productive forces is one of the main aims of the bourgeois revolution. And yet the North American bourgeoisie stopped at a certain stage in the undertaking, in fact, as we have seen, it actually took a few steps backward. Why? It was because this wily, late arrival of a bourgeoisie had never deployed all-out revolution as ones of its weapons, having always preferred instead to content itself with a few basic achievements that were to its advantage, i.e., unity, greater centralisation of the state, a free hand in commercial and industrial policy and also in foreign policy. A choice which, by potentially creating a state of permanent conflict, might have been costly under any other circumstances, but in a country like the United States was, as is said today, ‘a winning formula’. Yes, maybe they could have introduced an agrarian reform, but was that really advantageous? As part of the bourgeois revolution, the consequences of agrarian reform are a development of the productive forces, the creation of new social strata to counter-pose to the defeated classes who might attempt to regain power, the creation of a strong domestic market for industrial production, and an increase in the population to add to the future army of wage-earners (knowing that the land distributed would soon enough be lost, due to debt, etc). All of these advantages were however more or less guaranteed both through the development of the West, where a class of small and medium farmers was in rapid development over increasingly vast areas, and by the huge waves of emigration, which after the cessation of hostilities increased even further.
Even as far as the war was concerned the American bourgeoisie preferred to follow the bloodier path, leaving behind them 700,000 young men massacred, in the four years of war, and unprecedented destruction. Nothing was done to stir up the blacks in the South. In fact, if the blacks had been mobilised, secession would never have been proclaimed. It would have released 4 million desperate individuals whose revolt might have gone any number of ways. Certainly an anti-capitalist outcome would have been impossible, but the bourgeoisie is never keen on taking risks; it is always dominated by fear.
And it wasn’t wrong. In July, only a few weeks after Hayes’ inauguration had marked the end of Reconstruction, the country was confronted with what would become known as ‘The Great Strike of 1887’. With the problem of the blacks effectively suppressed for the next 80 years, the social question, the wage labour question, now appeared on the scene as a consequence of the great economic crisis, which had began in 1873 and whose consequences would be felt for the rest of the decade. This event, which could equally be called, ‘The Great Scare of 1877’, was managed with the ample use of the army and militia, which didn’t hesitate to massacre the strikers, take the place of workers on the railways, protect blacklegs, and prevent meetings and rallies by force. This struggle, which in certain cases assumed insurrectional proportions, may be considered as the beginning of the modern history of the workers’ movement in the United States.
It was only after defeating the blacks, the weakest section of the American proletariat, that American capitalism would launch its all-out attack against the urban working class mainly concentrated in the East and Mid-West. For the bourgeoisie, this was a much more dangerous and seasoned adversary, even though it still lacked strong and effective organisations. The containment of the blacks in the South, at the mercy of their ex-owners, excluded them, for the most part, from the industrial working class; their place was taken by the hordes of emigrants, who were often illiterate peasants who spoke a babel of languages. The blacks remained trapped in the states where previously they had been slaves, and from whence it was extremely difficult to escape.
When all is said and done, this chapter in the history of the bourgeoisie,
who are today masters of the world, adds up to little more than a miserable
balance sheet of advantages and disadvantages, of political and economic
debits and credits. The bourgeoisie that immolated itself on the battlefields
behind Cromwell’s banner, or as armed republicans in the French Revolution,
no longer exists. The final outcome of the American Civil War shows us
that throughout the world the petty mean-mindedness of the ruling class
was irreversible even then; a ruling class that still contaminates human
society today, distorting it in line with its own narrow interests.
THE HISTORICAL INVARIANCE OF MARXISM
THE FALSE RESOURCE OF ACTIVISM
(From the pamphlet, "Sul Filo del Tempo - n° 1 - ",
The party’s winter meeting was held in Sarzana at the weekend of 20-21 January 2007 and was organised by our unwaveringly loyal comrade from the Alpi Apuane, whose sterling preparatory work prompted praise from one and all. We based ourselves in a small, comfortable hotel, meeting in a quiet room with a pleasing view over the river Magra just at the point it emerges from the mountains and flows into the sea. In this pleasant setting with minimal distractions we could focus on our work and achieve a lot in a short time.
As usual, Saturday morning was dedicated to organising our various activities whilst Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning were devoted to the exposition of a series of reports on a range of difficult and complex subjects.
As always we not only checked that everything we have been doing is
doctrinally coherent and non-innovative, but also that it ties in with
our core party theses and has strengthened, rather than giving the least
hint of weakening, this earlier work. Keeping this ongoing party activity
alive, such that it can be transmitted to future generations, requires
and determines an appropriate atmosphere which we strive to maintain within
our‘ferociously anti-bourgeois’ body of militants, which even though
very small today is, nevertheless, as in the past, still ‘in contact
with the working class’.
Working Class Anti-militarism and the First World War
The first report, on anti-militarism, was developed on the basis of a description of the behaviour of the Italian Socialist Party from the time of the outbreak of the war until the Zimmerwald Conference in September 1915. With this aim in view the speaker made extensive use of quotations both of leaders of the PSI and the 2nd International and, most of all, of Lenin (which will be included in the complete version of the report, to be published in Comunismo).
Even though Italy was a member of one of the two opposing coalitions at the time of the outbreak of the war in August 1914, it nevertheless declared its neutrality. This was not however dictated by a wish for peaceful coexistence between nations, but was due rather to the ambiguous character which has ever distinguished the down-at-heel Italian bourgeoisie; which before throwing itself into a war it considered indispensable for its capitalist interests wanted, as well, to put up its potential intervention for sale, hoping to attract the best bidder, and hoping to ensure thereby a seat for its representative at any future peace talks: in other words, it would be happy to line up with the winning side.
The ambiguity of the Italian ruling class produced inside the Socialist Party an apparent unity of intent amongst the various currents comprising it, all of which declared their opposition to Italy entering the war. But the question that revolutionaries have asked ever since is this: if one leaves out of consideration the various tendencies within it, would the entire socialist party ever really have rallied openly, and in a classist manner, against the war? At first sight it might seem so, considering that even the right-wingers of Critica Sociale were writing statements of principle that seemed more or less in line with Marxist doctrine.
But to say more or less means there was something missing, and that missing something was constantly used as a loophole to introduce interventionism into the party. And if open interventionism wasn’t approved, although that might have been the best solution, there were plenty of other things that were.
Even though unaware of Lenin at the time, the revolutionary extreme left of the party was against the war and urged proletarian mobilisation and simultaneous anti-militarist class action in all countries; and, if that simultaneity didn’t occur it was prepared to sabotage the war by sabotaging its own national state, because even just sabotaging one of the two warring militarisms was equivalent to sabotaging them both.
The left of the party (later to be identified with maximalism) in control of the leadership, was also against the war, but despite its literature appearing to be based on correct Marxist directives the stance it defended was effectively a pacifist one. Not having understood, perhaps, that pacifism is equivalent to consigning a defenceless proletariat into the hands of militarism, it nevertheless adopted a programmatic slogan that as good as summed up that tendency.
The pacifism of the party’s historic right, which also declared against the war, was due instead to its loyalty to the stance taken by the Italian state.
As the situation slowly evolved, and Italian capitalism more and more openly stated its position, the positions of the various tendencies within the PSI began to crystallise as well. The party leadership, slowly but surely, became ever more prone to talking the kind of inconclusive waffle which would eventually be summed up in Lazzari’s formula, “né aderire, né sabotare”, neither to support, nor to sabotage. A formula that was not only ineffective but misleading as well, because “to not sabotage” is the same as “supporting”.
It must nevertheless be recognised that the PSI, by not participating in the union sacrèe, and by its strenuous efforts to prevent the fragmentation of the International, differed from all other 2nd International parties. Italian delegates were dispatched to make contact with the leaders of the international Bureau and of the various affiliated parties with the aim of organising international meetings to reach agreement on a common approach to the war, and on how to pressurise the various governments into stopping the fighting as soon as possible.
The left position was very different in tone: the order to mobilise should be met with a national general strike. Thus the party as a whole, even if ambiguously, showed it was committed to opposing the war, which it denounced as imperialist. Thus when interventionist socialists of the Central Empires or Allies went to Italy, they would be met with stern opposition and sent packing before they’d had a chance to air their corrupt proposals. And the way the Italian socialists behaved on these occasions was much appreciated, and often held up as an example, by Lenin himself.
But when it was a case of putting statements of principles into practice, the Italian Socialist Party showed itself incapable of learning from historical events: that is, it couldn’t see the need for a firm break with the 2nd International, which had proved that it wasn’t, and could no longer be, an instrument of revolutionary action.
The convocation of the Zimmerwald Congress itself showed that the need to break the threadbare links with the past and adhere to the revolutionary programme outlined by Lenin was totally incomprehensible to the Italian socialists. It was decided in fact that Zimmerwald «should in no way assist the creation of a new international, but rather call on the proletariat to act together for peace, to create a centre for such action, to attempt to lead the proletariat back to its class mission”. We hardly need mention that Lenin’s intention, the goal he was proposing, was exactly the opposite, i.e., to break drastically and definitively with the 2nd International in order to breathe life into authentically revolutionary 3rd.
At Zimmerwald, the discussions about a socialist policy towards the war led to the formation of three different currents.
Lenin supported the intransigent revolutionary position, that held that it was necessary to profit from the conflict in order to launch the proletarian revolution and transform the capitalist war between states into a revolutionary class war. The motion presented by the Russian, Polish, Swedish and Norwegian delegates stated, amongst other things, that «only after having been freed from the influence of bourgeois politics will there be any possibility of proletarian action for peace. But such a struggle can only be a revolutionary struggle. An action for peace cannot have as its sole aim achieving peace: given the maturity of social antagonisms such a struggle will become a struggle for socialism. The task of the socialist parties is to specify the action for peace by the proper means (Avanti!, 14 October 1915). This motion was rejected, with 12 votes for and 19 against, and the majority of the delegates supported a much less instransigent motion, which was more or less inspired by the Italian formula “né aderire, né sabotare”.
Despite having been put in the minority (not something that revolutionaries
lose much sleep over) Lenin maintained that the conference had carried
out a positive function and had served to consolidate the internationalist
spirit in that new direction symbolised by the initial step towards the
constitution of the 3rd international. «At this conference the battle
of ideas took place between the compact group of internationalists, the
Marxist revolutionaries, and the wavering semi-Kautskyists, who formed
the right wing of the conference. The consolidation of the group of Marxist
revolutionaries was one of the most important events and one of the greatest
successes of the conference. After an entire year of war, the only current
of the International that has presented a well-defined resolution –
a project clearly based on it – and which has regrouped consistent
Marxists from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Germany, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland
and Holland, is the current represented by our party”.
History of the American workers’ movement
The continuation of the report covered events in the period immediately after the War of Independence, culminating in the victory over the mother country, Great Britain.
Obviously the phenomenon of greatest importance for the country as whole and for the working class in particular was economic development, which was soon to transform a people based almost exclusively on self-sufficient agriculture into a major consumer of industrial goods. It is a process that would take over a century to complete, even if a few islands of self-sufficiency would survive into the 20th century.
Although the War of Independence wasn’t a revolution, as the Americans like to triumphantly define it, it did nevertheless liberate the indigenous forces that the English occupation had kept in check in order to favour British economic and commercial development. These forces can be divided into three interdependent categories, all of which characterise the industrial revolution: market, transport, manufacture.
The development of North America was also accompanied by significant demographic movements, both westwards, with the crossing of the Alleghany Mountains and the colonisation of the Midwest, and from Europe, with the immigration of relatively high numbers of mostly proletarian immigrants; and from Africa, with masses of Africans deported to work on the southern plantations.
Manufacturing production developed first of all in the textile sector, mainly in New England, and for many years it was based above all on women and children’s labour. Other sectors that developed early, but on a less massive scale, was the iron and steel industry, other activities linked with clothing, and of course shipbuilding, which in actual fact was the only non-craft based activity right up to the 19th century. For a good part of the period under consideration, i.e. the 80 years between the two great American wars, the production of manufactured goods remained the concern of small and medium sized craft workshops.
The report then paused to consider the characteristic features of this world, which saw working alongside each other the now obsolete figures of the master-owner of the workshop, the journeyman, or specialised worker, who hoped eventually to become a master-owner himself, and the apprentice, who hoped one day to become a journeyman. A relaxed, patriarchal world whose general pace and rhythms of activity required long apprenticeships in order to learn the craft and about the tools of the trade which every specialised worker owned as his personal endowment.
That isn’t to say, particularly in the big cities and where the activities of a particular sector were concentrated, that conflicts between workers and owners didn’t arise. Proletarians quickly realised that struggles were a lot more effective if there were trade or factory associations, which even when prohibited arose and disappeared in great numbers during the last quarter of the 18th century. Even if for a long time these trade unions stayed the preserve of white adult male specialised workers, they would slowly cast off the features which had been handed down from the medieval guilds and corporations. Trade union associationism would experience many highs and lows in the period from the war of independence up until the 1820s, and this was mainly linked to fluctuations in the economy.
The condition of the working class during this period is generally considered bearable when compared with that of the European proletariat, but in fact every time there was a crisis the bosses were quick either to reduce wages to below basic survival levels, or resort to mass sackings, persecuting with every means at their disposal those proletarians who stood up to them.
All things considered on the social scale it wasn’t the slaves who
were materially worst off, but rather the free coloured workers, who suffered
the additional burden of being on the receiving end of the bullying behaviour
of other workers, above all from the non-specialised workers among the
recently arrived immigrants who were in competion with them for the worst
The Jewish Question
We concluded Saturday’s work with the exposition of another chapter on the Jewish question.
The “One True Yahweh” movement of the 8th century before Christ marks the passage from Hebraism to absolute monotheism, as it has been passed down to the present day.
This movement determines not only the formation of the Jewish religion, but also the setting up of a politico-social apparatus with a clear and organic hierarchy. The movement’s struggle against the Baal (lords) of the neighbouring peoples turns Hebraism into a definite culture that stands out in ancient history as the perfect expression of monotheism.
Underlying this powerful super-structure is the notion that the Jewish people wouldn’t have meaning and direction without Jahweh, who has chosen them, the elect, to realise his historical design. Any form of deviation from this religious notion would mean provoking the sensibilities of a God who specifically defines himself as “jealous”.
Since historical materialism – leaving aside all edulcorated and almanac-type versions – sets great store by the outcome of all religions, in affirming its own... communism of the species, a movement such as this, which has had and continues to have a major influence today in human society, is not to be underestimated.
The molecular movement of social life, which manifests itself in culture and religion, cannot remain indifferent to the Jewish version of language and faith, which conceives a rigid organic nexus between “saying” and “doing”; or as we would say today, between “theory” and “practice”.
Dabar, in the Hebraic language is both “deed” and “word”. Between the saying and the doing there isn’t that fracture so typical of class society and modern culture, by which you can also conceive of doing something with no theory and conceive theories that are extraneous to, or which reject contact with practical life. It is a valuable lesson, considering that in our interpretation classless communism will need to convert saying into doing and doing into saying, and in an organic way such as to abolish all types of separation and alienation.
If so it is, the entire journey that the “One True Jahweh” movement
has taken up to now is symptomatic of a continuous erosion of the old Jewish
monotheism, up to today’s liberal-type faith in the individual,
although it claims, not by chance, to be going back to the notion of man
as ancient Hebraic religion would have produced him. Modern liberal
thinking, especially the type that has emerged in America, is full of the
Old and New Testament.
Course of the capitalist Economy
We reconvened the following day with an update on the economic statistical data.
A number of numerical tables were displayed and explained, which will be published in our press in due course.
As well as describing the most recent progress of the crisis in different countries, the scope of our ongoing study is to show that the various national capitalisms that have existed historically and which exist in the world today are all following the same parallel path that Marxism plotted out for them: towards the general crisis of over-production.
Although seemingly opposed to each other and cloaked in different accents of social mystification, capitalism, both in the countries where it originally arose in its classic form and in those where modern industrial development arrived later, continues to present the same features, in terms of economic and social development, as it did in the last century.
In the prevailing confusion of bourgeois interpretations, including
those which don’t blatantly aim to mislead the global proletariat, Marxism
manages to register with the same historical curve, expressible
both graphically and numerically, the apparent discontinuities of bourgeois
politics. Democracy and fascism in Europe, Stalinism and post-Stalinism
in Russia, Maoism and post-Maoism in China, state-planning and free trade
in India: in our tables and curves, even though based exclusively on bourgeois
sources, all of them are unified by laws that Marx detected and exhaustively
described for every capitalism, from the almost exclusively British
one that arose in his own day through to the planetary one, ready to die,
that we have today.
Balance sheet of the Iranian “Revolution”
This last of the reports on Iran followed two main lines of enquiry. On the one hand, an exposition of Iranian history up to the election of the current president, the first from outside the priestly ranks, on the other hand, the placing of Iran in the general framework of the Middle-East up to the time of the recent crisis and the global tension around the control of sources of oil and gas.
From the very beginning of the report Iran’s pivotal role was emphasised. It is an area which has suffered the consequences of both the first and second Gulf wars (1990-1991 and 2003-...); of the dismemberment of the Soviet Union with the re-entry into the deadly imperialist game of the great oil-bearing areas which used to be part of the ex-colossus; of the attack by the USA under the NATO banner on Afghanistan and its invasion, and finally from the overwhelming appearance on the industrial and financial scene of India and China, which are also seeking to control their sources of energy.
Politically, for Iran, the decade from 1990 to 2000 marks the definitive consolidation of the theocratic state, a factor that has also conditioned the formation of a strong national bourgeoisie.
After eight years of war, devastating not only for the economy but also for civil society, the proletariat, which had dared to take heaven by storm, is exhausted by the slaughter which has cut down young and old alike. But even though betrayed by the democratic and reformist parties, it will still find it within itself, after this terrible decade of profound crisis, to launch fierce industrial battles, particularly in 2004, 2005 and 2006 when a series of strikes would shake Iran to its very foundations. A change of government would be the response.
After the revolution the capital consisting of crown property and oil revenue becomes for the most part the property of parastatal industrial and financial organisations, controlled directly or indirectly by the high shiite clergy, which finds itself playing the role of first capitalist.
After having passed through the war, and two reforms which parcelled up the cultivatable land without being able to guarantee an acceptable livelihood to the small peasant farmers, landed property has been reconstituted for the most part as church property. The social strata of day labourers and poor farmers, of share-croppers and small landlords barely able to eke out an existence, who were absent as an autonomous movement during the revolution against the Shah, who were absent after the priests’ reform, has never given expression to an autonomous movement nor ever expressed itself as a significant force within the fabric of Iranian society.
In the 90s, the economy would be weighed down by inflation and an enormous public debt. Most young people were out of work and the slump in oil prices sharpened the crisis. Outside the energy sector there was no significant industrial development. The former, moreover, would become increasingly automated and cause a reduction in the requirement for non-specialised labour power and therefore cause further unemployment.
In 1995 the USA imposes commercial sanctions, and Iran becomes officially classified as a ‘rogue state’.
The failure of the cautious process of democratisation ‘from on high’ and Rafsanjani’s abortive attempts to liberalize politics lead on the one side to conflict within the ‘priests’ party’ and to a shift towards democracy on the social plane on the other, which is realized with the election of the reformist Khatami – August 1997 – as leader of the government. His platform consists of a commitment to continue the hitherto successful attempts to contain social pressure by ‘opening up democracy’.
The politico-religious leader who replaced the deceased Khomeini, the ayatollah Khamenei, remains at the top. The strict custodian of Shiite orthodoxy, he is the representative not only of Church landed property, but also of the financial and capitalist concentration owned by the Foundations (Bonyad), which control over 40% of the gross domestic product and employ around 5 million people out of a labour force of 40 million. The Foundations control the “Guardians of the Revolution” (pasdaran), a militarised corps of 150,000 men, a third of the regular armed forces, which in its turn is backed up by more than 300,000 reservists (basiji) organised in paramilitary militias.
The state governmental apparatus, of truly Byzantine complexity, is the fruit of an unresolved and abortive revolution from above. The diarchy of power devised as a consequence has proved to be just as functional at maintaining social control as the western “democracies”, but also reveals the contradictions within a state whose foundations are actually fully capitalist.
On the domestic front, Khatami’s “reformists” win a parliamentary majority, but violent repression of proletarian and petty-bourgeois opposition becomes increasingly intense. The mounting social pressure, spurred on by the demand for greater democracy, is kept firmly under control by the religious militias. At a formal level the right to associate and to strike is recognised, but the authorities clamp down hard on organisations that invoke these rights: and when the populist government is elected in 2005, things don’t improve.
Khatami’s political failure is a natural consequence of his failure to raise the general standard of living amongst the city-dwelling masses. Although re-elected for a second term in 2001 it is with a much reduced majority, and in 2003 the ‘conservatives’ regain the majority in the Majlis on the wave of popular discontent. In 2005, Ahamadi-Nejad becomes the first ‘lay’ president of the post-war period.
This triple control of Parliament, Presidency and Council of the Guardians of the Revolution, centralises political power. The dualism of previous years is brought to an end, and not with a victory of the priests. For the derelict Iranian bourgeoisie, the dictatorship of the conservative party is perhaps a positive thing, because finally all power is concentrated in a one party dictatorship resembling the European ones of the thirties, or of Argentine Peronism. And although subject to the religious leaders in a formal sense, it is more ‘lay’ than ‘theocratic’; certainly more so than the previous reformist regime.
Despite Iran being a primary oil producer, the domestic mechanisms for setting a ceiling on market prices mean the country spends a tremendous amount on acquiring petrol. In response to the consequent energy shortfall the nuclear programme has been resolutely pursued. Formerly got underway in 1990 with assistance from the Soviet Union, stopped and then started again in 2003 under the reformist government, it was then stopped again under pressure from the USA.
As regards Iran’s ‘conventional sources’, three projects centred on three strategic areas have been set up. The first regards the collecting of gas from the Iranian Caspian Sea and the channelling towards the gulf not only of Russian and Turkmen gas and oil but also quotas of Kazakh oil, making the selling of crude oil to South East Asia at lower prices than present a commercial proposition. The second concerns the exploitation of the oil-fields in the South of Iraq bordering the Iranian fields (providing a pretty good explanation for the Sunni-Sh’ia conflict in Iraq, incidentally, and for the stance taken by the United States to the Iranian presence in the region) and the third and final one involves the project to supply the natural gas extracted from Iran’s enormous South Pars gas field, situated in the middle of the Persian Gulf, to India and Pakistan via the so-called “Peace Pipeline”. Ferociously opposed by the USA the new pipeline will channel the gas (whose only means of transport is through the pipelines, unlike oil which can be transported by other means) towards its Asian trade competitors, and in the opposite direction to the Iran-Turkey pipeline, which is linked in with the ‘Nabucco’ pipeline project to channel gas across from the Caspian to Europe.
Up to now the United States has responded by cutting off Iran from the international financial system by preventing American banks from supporting Iranian operations in dollars (investments and credit) a lead which Swiss, Dutch and English banks have started to follow, and also by prohibiting American firms, the leaders in the field, from exporting the liquification and re-gassification technology and equipment needed to enable the transportation of gas. The latter will particularly affect operations in the South Pars gas field, and therefore the Asian market.
And the latter is part of the history of today.
The Military Question
The report presented is mainly a reworking of a major party study that appeared earlier in Il Progamma Comunista (in issue no.23, 1961 through to no. 13, 1966). The current aim, apart from revisiting conclusions reached in the previous analysis, is to extend and complete certain chapters. This is very much in line with our traditional method of working, which considers all of our work as ‘work in progress’, that is, not completed once and for all but as work which lends itself to further amplification and improvement. Like fishermen, we weave into our nets the dialectical knots needed to avoid leakages of energy during the future violent and revolutionary inundation; and by patiently repairing the damaged stitching, once so solid but today broken, we steadily strengthen the overall fabric.
However, we mustn’t confuse the question of armaments with the wider issue of violence or the military question, of which it is but one aspect.
The work’s theoretical approach is to study the evolution of the military question in relation to the successive modes of production, linked in their turn to the development of the productive forces and with a corresponding military organisation.
Our premise is that violence arises as a result of material and economic causes. Rejecting all facile pacifist sentimentalism, or bellicose aestheticism, our starting point must necessarily be the same as it was for our teachers, who summed up the dialectical core element in the following terms: «Force, rather than dominating the economic order, was compelled to serve it» (Engels) and «Violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new society. It is itself an economic power» (Marx). It’s a matter of identifying the successive concrete historical resolutions of this complex dynamic.
Our starting point is the function of violence in the epoch of primitive communism and the transition to civil or class society.
The small human communities were forced out of necessity to unite together and as often as not this happened by means of force. Knowledge derived from the subject communities would be absorbed by the victors, and eventually the prisoners of war, who previously had simply been killed, or even eaten, were allowed to survive, reduced into slavery and their labour power utilised. But «Before slavery became possible, a certain level of production had to be reached along with a certain level of inequality of distribution».
Classical Greece offers us the first complete picture of the rise and fall of a slave society, which had a very slow pace of life because technology was still very primitive, with a correspondingly slow pace of productivity. The permanent conflict between the agricultural aristocracy and the wealthy merchants and ship-builders was Greece’s great weakness and the main cause of its lack of unity. This cannot be said of Rome whose economic power was based on widespread agriculture: no important conflicts arose within the landed aristocracy, within the Senate. Rome’s later rise to Mediterranean power was enabled by the contemporary decline of the ones preceding it.
A description was given of the hoplite phalanx, the basis of the military power of the Greek city state. The epoch of battles between soldiers on horseback, characteristic of the archaic age, in which soldiers dismounted in order to throw their spears and fight hand to hand, runs roughly from 1200 to 800 B.C. The period of the hoplite infantry, coinciding with the rise of the city-state, runs from 650 to 338 B.C., date of the Greek defeat at the hands of the more efficient Macedonian phalanx. During the period of the hoplite phalanx, war is no longer a personal duel between rich horsemen but a broader more collective struggle, an open field battle of entire, well-organised communities, indicating an increased development of the productive forces. The speaker went on to describe the hoplite panoply and battle equipment, their usage and their limitations, then their characteristic battle formations and tactics, their eventual overtaking by the Macedonian phalanx, and the function of the different units after the introduction of the cavalry. The structure of the hoplite phalanx quickly spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and was successively modified by the Carthaginians and by the Romans as armies became ever more massive and the empire expanded.
The general historical and economic development of slave society in Rome becomes characterised by the continuous effort to organise its available energies and the military forms necessary to guarantee a constant flow of slaves, who eventually end up being used in almost every realm of productive activity. This gradually undermines the constitutive basis of ancient Rome, i.e., the small peasant proprietor, who when the need arose abandoned his fields and transformed himself into a legionary. As military duties become more and more onerous, the latter was reduced to poverty, losing his possessions.
Reference was made to the enormous number of slaves deported after each war of conquest.
The economic reforms that Rome introduced to deal with this immense effort were many and various, ranging from the earliest one, as far back as the 6th century B.C, under Servius Tullius, to that of Gaius Marius, who introduced the first professional army. From then on a permanent military force could be counted on, but gradually it would become an army that was Roman only in name, composed in fact of barbarian elements, and of ex-defeated enemies right up to the rank of general.
Many exclusively military reforms were also introduced, ranging from those needed to defeat the Carthaginians in great pitched battles, mirroring always increased productive powers, to those of Marius involving the speeding up tactical manoeuvres. In the first imperial age there were as many as 28 legions, adding up to around 150,000 men. Soldiers were paid regularly but with varying ‘labour contracts’ according to whether imperial guardsmen (praetorians), whose pay was higher and whose length of service was shorter (16 years), normal legionaries on a 20 year contract and paid less, or auxiliaries, who had to serve for even longer and were paid less still.
The economic power needed to maintain this huge war machine was ensured by Caesar Augustus with the institution of the ‘military treasury’, which imposed a percentage tax on important economic operations: 1% on auction sales, 4% on sales of slaves, and so on.
But the crisis of this society based on slavery became ever more acute, and even the 75 legions, that is, around 900,000 men, which Constantine had at his disposal weren’t enough to save the decadent empire.
* * *
After the last report, on the late Sunday afternoon, the meeting drew
to an official close. For those comrades who didn’t have to rush off
immediately, a visit to the excavations at the Roman city of Luni, close
to our meeting venue, had been organised.
An Excellent Party Meeting in Parma [RG98]
Our general meeting this time took place in the city of Parma, over the weekend of 19 and 20th May, 2007. Comrades from Italy, France and Great Britain attended, some arriving on the morning of the Friday and leaving on the Monday, everyone appreciating the warm hospitality extended to them.
The well-organised sittings were held in a pleasant, quiet well-lit room. Used to working with one another according to the spontaneous and serried discipline that characterises communist method, our small group of militants managed, as always, ‘to get done what needed to be done’ in an unhurried way, unworried about obtaining immediate results, which we know to be impossible anyway. In a word, we pressed on free from all those neuroses exhibited by miserable bourgeois individuals, who are certainly not envied by the conscious proletariat.
We undertook a careful review of all the party’s various activities and engagements, which today mainly centre on the study of Marxist doctrine and the enveloping global capitalist crisis, and on external propaganda. All comrades tend to contribute to this elaboration, although all are keenly aware that the meeting isn’t a conference, or anything to do with democracy, nor based on the opinions of particular individuals; rather it is about participation in a real social battle.
We also keep in the forefront of our minds that our work in defence of the communist theory can only be effective if carried out within the framework of the class political party, which reaches out towards the class in its daily life and struggles, in a complex, necessary and constant relationship.
As usual the Saturday morning meeting was devoted to organisational
matters and the afternoon and the Sunday to the reports. The latter, summed
up below, will be published in full in Comunismo.
History of the workers’ movement in the USA - the first organisations
The first report presented another instalment in the ongoing history of the workers’ movement in the USA, examining labour conditions in the period after the War of Independence. From a political point of view workers got caught up in the Democratic Societies, clubs that supported the Democratic Party which was seen by the city proletariat as an organisation that defended their interests. This would result in the bourgeoisie gaining the proletariat’s staunch support during the war of 1812 against England. From the trade union point of view, however, workers’ organisations were weak and of short duration.
How weak proletarians actually were is evidenced by the spread of the yellow-dog contracts. Signing these documents obliged workers (mainly female) not to join a labour union. Not abiding by the contract made them liable for non-payment of their wages, and since often salaries were only paid twice a year, it was a particularly heavy penalty. There was also the widespread use of black lists, used to bar recalcitrant workers from finding work, at least in the same state or industrial sector. Only in 1823 did the movement revive, the crowning moment of which was the founding of the Mechanics’ Union of Trade Associations in Philadelphia, the first town-based trade union to unite all trades within one organisation. This, in its turn, arose out of the 10 hours movement. At a time when proletarians were finding it difficult to form durable organisations, a situation that only really changed in the 1840s, the struggle for the 10-hour day was an objective that united them more than anything else.
Meanwhile, in the realm of politics, the vote was gradually extended to ever-broader strata of the working class, who would receive greater attention from bourgeois politicians, amongst whom there were genuine and dedicated leaders originating from both the bourgeois class and the workers and artisan strata. In 1828 the Working Men’s Party was formed in Philadelphia. But neither this, nor other ephemeral organisations that arose over the following years, ever managed to really get the working masses behind them, although, here and there, there were sporadic electoral successes. And none of these organisations could be described as socialist, not even of the utopian variety, and the theories informing them subscribed rather to the fanciful lines of thinking inspired by the enlightenment thinkers.
Proletarians continued to follow the two national parties and in particular
the Democratic Party. For this reason, although with notable interruptions,
mainly during the decades straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, the American
working class from a political point of view has always lagged behind their
European counterparts, despite the continuous injection of socialism and
other revolutionary doctrines brought in with the incessant waves of German,
English and Italian immigrants arriving from Europe.
The Origin of the Trade unions in Italy - The CGIL
The second report was on the important subject of the history of the trade unions in Italy.
In the last chapter on the subject, presented at the party meeting in Viareggio in June 2006 (see p.76, Communist Left no. 25/26), we covered the birth of the “Red CGL” in Naples immediately after the 2nd World War. Quotations from the pages of the CGL’s organ, Battaglie Sindacali, proved that the organisation had a combative and genuinely classist character.
The present chapter covers the CGIL (the Italian General Confederation of Labour), formed in Bari as an openly patriotic organisation under the auspices of the CLN (Committee of National Liberation).
From its first programmatic statements onwards, much to the consternation of the working class, there was a call for ‘sacrifices’, which had to be made for ‘the good of the firm’ in order to ‘increase production’. And then there was the ‘sharing’ in the management of the enterprise with the aim of improving ‘labour productivity’ and lowering ‘production costs’; whence we can see their full endorsement of the bourgeois point of view in their very use of the language.
But the Italian working class didn’t passively abide by the collaborationist directives of the Stalinists and the CLN. On July 15, 1946 Di Vittorio, the general secretary of the CGIL, would lament «the tendency of the masses to slip out of our organisational control. They have launched a strike without the Camera del Lavoro and degenerated into violence. The CGIL is committed to containing the mass movement, moderating the workers’ demands, and avoiding strikes and agitations». In the same year the CGIL invited workers to support the Reconstruction Loan and in September signed the pact agreeing to a six-month wage freeze, later to be renewed.
Clearly the CGIL was a patriotic ‘tricolore’ union from its very inception, imposed from above and designed to exclude the impulses welling up from the rank-and-file as a result of the recent post-war imperialist arrangements.
However, as regards this difficult question it was quickly established by our party, at a conference in Turin in 1946, that this bourgeois mortgage on the workers’ union, and the latter’s “present counter-revolutionary function”, didn’t derive from “its capitalist class nature” but was purely due to “the general political situation”. The problem didn’t reside in the “organisational form” as such, but was due to the “current balance of forces”.
Therefore our party would take part in the CGIL’s Florence congress
under the slogan: «Support the class union, fighting organisation of the
proletariat. Oppose the trade-union-prison, domain of the government parties
and strategic standby of imperialism». And even though our comrades represented
thousands of members they would be denied a platform by Di Vittorio, who
stated they didn’t express a “constructive” tendency.
Course of the Economy
Also at this meeting we were able to update our picture of the course of the capitalist economy, which is a vital and ongoing work. The various charts and numerical tables were projected onto a screen, making it much easier for comrades to follow the lengthy exposition.
Industrial production tables for USA, Germany, Japan, France, Great Britain, Italy, Russia, China and India were presented. Having already gone through the historical series at previous meetings we concentrated here on the most recent years, including monthly data. The exception was Russia, whose growth rate we plotted from 1989, the year of the collapse and unmasking of so-called ‘soviet’ socialism.
In order of seniority: Great Britain, the dean of capitalism, shows a ‘flat curve’, with light oscillations around zero. Industrially, it appears on its last legs. The most recent figure from February indicates a 0.3% increase in production over the previous year. The significance of this phenomenon (on the economic plane, and consequently as regards the prospect of revolution, since can any kind of ‘post-capitalism, apart from communism, actually exist?) must be sought in the global context; within the dynamics of a ‘division of labour’ that moves capital and labour power across continents. The old capitalisms increasingly rely on revenue and interest rather than on profit. ‘The City’, thanks to its so-called ‘light touch’ approach to financial regulation and particularly lax tax system, accepts and ‘recycles’ monetary capital from all over the world. The working class, of course, doesn’t benefit from any of these fluctuations and its situation continues to deteriorate.
The growth rates of the other ‘senior’ capitalisms – France, Italy and Japan – are not much higher, with a decline in the first months of this year (2007) although still not yet in recession.
Meanwhile there is an upturn in the United States and Germany, despite the former in a slowdown: from a maximum of +5.9% in September to +2.3% in March. Germany, meanwhile, after the recession in far off 2002 has shown continuous almost uninterrupted growth: +7.9% in February and +7.6% in March, which is really quite substantial.
As for Russia, after the ruinous decade running from 1989-1998 its economy seems to be picking up again, but given that the data we have is not that reliable, and it’s unclear whether it refers to manufacturing or mining, further study is required.
The picture changes quite dramatically when we look at the Asiatic giants. Marxist theses on the inevitability and universality of capitalism are fully confirmed. That alone shows that Marx’s work towers above the flat plains of bourgeois thinking. One capitalism to plague mankind: one party and one revolution to overthrow it.
But quantity must also be taken into account: in the historic sequence England-USA-China, whilst the capitalist quality is the same the order of magnitude of these successive ‘workshops of the world’ is different.
Although they are societies with very different histories, India and China both show prodigious growth rates with production increasing more than 10% over the last year: both also, of course, are ultimately accelerating down the road to catastrophic ruin.
For this meeting the speaker had been able to complete an updated world trade chart, including trade in raw materials and agricultural produce as well as industrial products. Data on imports, exports, trade balances, in dollars and in global percentages, was included covering the period 1948-2005.
Postponing the publication of the complete chart, all of it very significant, to the next issue of Comunismo we will just highlight some of the more important points here.
Over the entire post-war period the volume of world trade has been in rapid and constant growth; its contraction will signal the onset of the real crisis, and war.
Although the value of each capitalism’s exports and imports continues to grow, its own particular slice of world trade varies considerably and not always in parallel with its industrial growth: some economies depend more on the world market more than others. But the degree of participation in global trade gives a good indication of an industrial power’s vitality compared with others.
Here in extreme synthesis:
First group: already in decline since 1948. England, after peaking in 1948, after emerging victorious from the war, was already only exporting 11% of the world total and importing 13%: still a lot however and second only to the USA. Since then there has been a slow decline to 4% and 5% in 2005: a very unfavourable balance of trade.
The USA as well peaked in 1948, with exports at 22% reducing bit by bit down to 9% in 2005. On the other hand there is an irregular rise in imports over the same period, up to 17% in 2003 reducing to 16.5% in 2005. Trade balance: an enormous amount in the red – 830 billion dollars.
Second group: peaking in 1973, Germany, France, Italy and Japan.
In 1973 Germany gets to export 12% of world exports and imports 9%, reducing in 2005 to 9% and 7%: a very good balance of trade. France is at half these values but with a negative balance.
Italy and Japan, younger capitalisms, have managed to delay the year of peak exports to 1993, then declining to 3.6% for Italy and to 6% for Japan. Italy breaking even, Japan in the black.
China enters the foreign market after 1983 and by 2005 is responsible for 7.5% of exports and 6.3% of imports, its balance in the black. Amongst the exporting countries it ranks third. The top eight exporters, and this is quite significant, is as follows: Germany-USA-China-Japan-France-England-Italy-Russia.
India, on the contrary, still seems to be mainly targeting its domestic market. Russia is still suffering from the collapse of its domestic structure and of it imperial relations to the extent that its percentage of exports and imports actually peaked back in the days of the USSR.
All this will need to be illustrated in more detail in the more extended
The military question - feudalism
At the last meeting in Sarzana we dealt with the military question during the phase of primitive communism and under slavery; we now proceeded to apply our theoretical and historical perspective to feudal society.
Dialectical materialism sees violence as flowing entirely naturally from the class struggle and from the dynamics of the different forms of production, and shows its intimate connection with the economy, which determines its necessity and its development. It is necessary to distinguish the use of force in wars between state armies from conflicts within these same societies between the suppressed classes and the organised powers. It is necessary then to investigate the origins of given political structures and their historical interaction with the use of force, as well as the limitations of these powers, why they were developed, and their rise and fall.
Restricting ourselves to Western Europe, we then went on to review, more or less chronologically, the key historical facts of feudal society in relation to military events, highlighting the often vital role of violence in economic development.
The State is an organisation that exerts class violence. We examine how its structure changes in relation to the material sources from which it draws its vital nourishment. Naturally those sources are none other than the economic assets of one or more classes and the function of the state is the defence of the interests of those classes and the maintenance of the existing relations of production.
When the feudal mode of production starts to succumb to the pressure of a new more efficient mode, the power of the feudal lords starts to fall into the hands of other classes. As their seigniorial dominion is emptied of content they appear merely as parasites and courtiers. But the power of their armies is not in immediate and mechanical correspondence with the material development of productive technology and social maturation. For that to come about Revolutions are required.
Introducing this chapter of the report the speaker referred back to an old controversy between Marxists and bourgeois ideologues about how to evaluate feudalism; one which in fact touches on the overall question of how human history as a whole is viewed. Bourgeois historians, convinced of the overall superiority of capital and democracy, describe feudalism as a period of general backwardness, as a relapse into obscurantism and authoritarianism. During the passage from a slave society to a feudal one the volume of production undoubtedly declined, but this was nevertheless a transitory, if long lasting, phase. Such can happen during the passing from one mode of production to another, and the length of time the new structures take to establish themselves is not always identical. But suffice to say that it is after the destruction of the imperial unity of the Roman slave system, during the Middle Ages, that the foundations of the modern nation states are laid.
The speaker accordingly went on to describe the slow decline of the Empire, pressed on all sides by the barbarian invasions, and then, using quotations from Engels, he went on to describe the technical and organisational aspects of German and Frankish warfare of the period.
Special attention was then given to the formation of the temporal power
of the Church with its characteristic state form, and to the long battle
between the Church and the Empire.
The Jewish question - the 30 pieces of silver
The charge that has forever been laid against Judaism is that of ‘betrayal’ for abject reasons: for money. We often use similar language ourselves, blaming working class and communist defeats on the betrayal of particular parties and workers trade unions: human beings and their organisations do betray. But those counterblows are due to objective historical causes and processes.
Was Judas perhaps raising money for the cause? And what was the cause? What was the Zealot movement fighting for? It was a nationalist movement that considered Jesus too lukewarm on the question of political engagement against the Roman Empire and the collaborationist forces.
The canonical charge against lending money was pronounced as early as 300 AD, going on later to encompass both scholasticism and the protestant Reformation, and giving birth to Shylock and other expressions of anti-semitism.
The materialist dialectic doesn’t deploy prejudice against capital. Our fight against capitalism has nothing to do with ‘reactionary socialism’ and the regurgitations of populist demagoguery. Anti-semitic hatred has been one of the resources of these positions, which pose as anti-capitalist but display a total ignorance of historic dynamics, which they don’t seem to want to know about either.
Using the formula ‘struggle against the Jewish-demo-plutocracy’ the big financial and industrial bourgeoisie resorted to fascism, successfully drawing the middle classes along behind them and trying to uproot all internationalist feeling within the proletariat with the use of nationalist propaganda.
If it is true that identifying someone as a sworn enemy is generally equivalent to projecting one’s own sick fantasies, in the modern age there is no doubt that the relationship between Western culture and money has tended to prompt hatred rather than understanding of the unresolved contradictions involved. And whenever the nature of money is subjected to analysis, its social function is ignored and it is credited with some kind of metaphysical power: its insuperable ‘vices’ and idolatrous powers are stigmatised without however providing a dialectical explanation as to how such a sorry state of affairs might have come about. It would take science and Marx’s impassioned study to resolve the question. Historical materialism recognises the idolatrous nature of money, but explains it in relation to actual production and distribution.
It is not apparent reversals of values that herald the ending of a system of production. The transmutation of values happens after and not before the real historical revolutionising of the relations of production.
Under communism there is no money or competition, no hegemony of nations. Communism is anticipated on the theoretical level as the overcoming of these characteristics, and therefore no global investment bank or global government of the economy can possibly prefigure it.
In the words of Marx, the apostate Jew, the ‘Jewish Question’ can only be resolved with the downfall of Capital. Indeed not just the Jewish question, but the national, the ‘Islamic’, and the ‘Catholic’ questions, too.
Will there be no room for feelings, then, in communist society? Of course there will! But since these are the product of fundamental social relations, they will inevitably be very different.
* * *
During the meeting there was also a brief exposition of the Iraqi question: the speaker gave us an up-to-date report on how the work is going, adding detail to what has already been published in our press.
There was also discussion about the need to deepen our examination of that nebulous entity known as the‘Iraqi resistance’, highlighting the contradictions in order to better delineate the nature of the various groups and parties.