The text we are presenting here (Better Fewer, But Better) was written by Lenin on March 2, 1923 and first appeared in Pravda two days later. Presented as the last article he wrote in his own lifetime, it was intended as a further contribution towards solving the tough challenges faced by the Russian Revolution. According to political gossipers, it represented his “political testament”, together with a bunch of other documents first made public after the 20th CPSU Congress in 1956, with the intention of denouncing Stalinism from a “right-wing” perspective, using arguments that were even worse, more counter-revolutionary and late-bourgeois reactionary than those of Stalin in his lifetime; arguments that were therefore even further from those of Lenin and of all authentic communists past and present.
We have no need to learn the “last words” of our teachers, and still less their “last will and testament” in the sense of passing on private property. The complete Lenin, with all of his gigantic collected works spanning 30 years, the man and the party comrade, always informed by the complete Marx, stands for a coherent reading of social reality in accordance with our monolithic and scientific historical doctrine. It has neither beginning nor end in the continuum of party life. If Lenin’s health had not deteriorated he would have continued to write in this way, or perhaps we should say he would not have been prevented from doing so by the infamous maneuvers within the party.
The choice of this text is therefore partly random, since we could draw on any one of many others by Lenin to point to similar conclusions. This one lays out the situation of Russia in 1923 and assesses the first five years since October. We have already referred to this document in our 1955 work, Economic and Social Structure of Contemporary Russia (“Struttura”), in particular Chapter 101 of Part 2, entitled “A farewell to Lenin” and earlier chapters (1).
The situation was objectively complex and difficult. Post-revolutionary Russia was a society of phases, the opposite of homogeneity, in which layers of social geology lay one upon the other and which, as Lenin taught, extended from partiarchy, to small-scale mercantile agriculture, to private capitalism and right through to State capitalism and the embryonic forms of communist economy: all evolving and in opposition and struggle against each otherl. Politically, we have the dictatorship of the workers’ and peasants’ soviets, led solely by the communist party; but the revolution was far from having been accomplished, the powerful forces of the bourgeois counter-revolution, even though for the moment driven from the field by the weapons of the red army, still offered blunt resistance, both inside and outside Russia, in a network of dethroned classes and the embassies and general staffs of the leading capitalist States, planning and organizing their counterattack.
In a backward country the burden of tradition, which is more feudal than bourgeois, is particularly onerous; tradition seeps “through every fissure” and even the Soviet State’s own structure cannot be made water-tight.
Capitalism was germinating powerfully and spontaneously in Russia, out of historical necessity. And despite the desperate economic conditions of the country, this represented progress, even in our sense, as it created the material premise for an ineluctable transition towards socialism: both economically, since this lays the modern structures and infrastructures without which socialism is impossible, and socially, because the resurgence of an extensive, developed and concentrated industrial class of wage laborers, which is the true foundation, driving force and source of energy for communist power.
Therefore, communists in Russia, if they want to stay in power, must at the same time:
Continue to maintain good relations with the peasantry, as they have simultaneously triggered and won the revolution in the countryside and fought courageously in the revolutionary army; Soviet power and the only communist and working class party is based on the alliance with them; the peasantry, of whom by far the greatest part are small or very small producers as a result of the revolution and the dispossession of the great landowners, constitute a petty bourgeoisie with a mentality that is as conservative as may be imagined; yet they are essential to feed the cities and the army.
It is therefore necessary to accede to, and foster the development of capitalism, which implies the re-establishment of internal free trade; there is not yet an industrial complex that can be controlled by the Soviet State and that could supply the peasants with its own products (machinery, fertilizers and so on) in exchange for grain. It is still not goods that are required but commodities, regardless of where, how and by whom they are produced, that can be exchanged for money.
We must push this reborn capitalism towards the most modern forms of automation and large-scale industry all the way to State capitalism; hence the need to resort to loans from abroad, from our implacable enemies in England and France who, as members of the bourgeoisie, cannot help but run wherever they smell good business; we must also seek out the advice of the necessary experts and technicians etc. and pay the going rate.
All of this while maintaining the communist power of the working class by means of its party, not with the perspective of “building socialism” in isolated Russia, but in anticipation of the revolution in the West, even if, as we said, “it takes 50 years”. It was a matter of keeping a tight rein, for so long as possible, on the infernal anarchic and subversive forces of revived capitalism, which were exerting pressure on all sides, internally and internationally; we could only rely on the strength of the working class in power, seizing the conquests of the revolution, first of all through State ownership of all the land and the monopoly of foreign trade. There was no path open other than to seek to hold capitalism “under siege” with the power of the communist State.
This was the extremely difficult situation that the party was faced with at the time, which Lenin investigates and deconstructs and for which he tries to identify not “new paths” but the correct Marxist line of action.
The text that we are presenting here is therefore as difficult as the complexity of the situation we were going through. It is always amazing the way that Lenin presents the lofty and severe historical dialectic, with crystalline simplicity and always in an orthodox reading of Marxism. He drills through all the overlapping strata of Russian society: pre-bourgeois, middle-bourgeois, large-bourgeois, a reality that he connects to the situation of global imperialism, for which he advances valid considerations and forecasts: a capitalism in deadly crisis, but always on the rampage against the first ever Communist State. But his thinking, as ever, is focused on another phase, that of our worldwide revolution.
For the purpose of strengthening the Soviet State, “in pitiful conditions”, Lenin therefore proposed reforming the People’s Commissariat of Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection with a view consolidating it and its greater authority and prestige within the State’s organs and within the Party. There should be, in his words, a high-level institute of technicians, of educated and expert workers, that draws its members both from the Party and from the State; that imposes itself thanks to the general respect for which it has proved worthy.
Not that Lenin ignores the latent, ineluctable, explosion of the conflict of interests between the two revolutionary classes, the workers and the peasantry, but he sees the possibility of containing it, or of putting it off “for some decades”, in a “civil” and “cultural” development, which in Marxist language means acquiring technical knowledge already typical of bourgeois societies and the capitalist ability to employ them practically on a large scale. So: let’s reopen factories, at least the pre-war ones, let’s bring electricity to the farms of the boundless country, together with tools, seeds, fertilizers and agronomists; with incentives from the State, these farms will be encouraged to regroup in cooperatives, where the low productivity of agricultural labor will be raised, freeing former peasants, who will be welcomed into new factories as wage laborers.
Thus, while this is certainly not yet an instrument of communist planning “of things”: simply an ”inspection”, for the moment principally against corruption and waste, to “hold out”. This is so, even if we want to catch a glimpse of something in that direction, something extra that is post-corporate and purely “technical”; something also joyful, as our struggle for communism always is, or even jocular, as Lenin comes to write. This of course has nothing to do with the Stalinist “plans”, which reduced this dialectic to the mere accumulation of capital, not to then be able to overthrow its power in capitalist States and to break up social relations based on wage labor and commodity exchange.
The opportunity to proceed in the direction of communism was an international and not a merely Russian issue; a condition for this was that the communist party should stay in power and stay communist. We know that on the contrary, in the space of a few years, the politics of the Russian party changed direction by 180 degrees to dedicate itself to “building socialism” in Russia alone, having become a party devoted to the accumulation of national capital as an end in itself. The alliance of workers and peasants was therefore turned on its head, with the interests of “kolkhozized” peasants prevailing socially over those of the workers and politically against any socialist and internationalist perspectives. The “Soviet” State became a facade, just like the “democratic” States of the West, to hide the dictatorship of national and international capital.
In the last part, which we publish in full, Lenin goes on to lay out the future prospects for the international revolution, against the backdrop of a deep crisis among the capitalisms of Europe, especially in Germany, and the growing clash of interests between the United States and Japan, which already led him to predict the next war.
But he regarded the setting in motion of the populous countries of the Orient as a massively progressive factor. Here we had full confirmation of how powerful revolutionary processes matured and how they broke out. Here too, however, the lack of a faithful, wise and coherent Marxist communist leadership of the insurgent masses of workers and peasants prevented, over the course of a few years, the exceptional and inevitable phenomenon of the Russian October from being favorably repeated in China.
The historic cycle of the double revolutions, as Marx and Lenin had already predicted in our communist doctrine, according to which the global working class achieved its first victory in October, maintaining it for a few years, and had glimpsed the next in the Orient – this cycle has been fulfilled with the universal assertion of national bourgeoisies over the old regimes and the old classes. One hundred years later and ahead of the future revolution of the working class and its only party, the great lessons of October remain chiseled, not yet in the minds of the proletariat, but in the hard granite of the impersonal historical experience of the class party, anticipators of the future. Along with Lenin, we list these as:
1. October set the definitive seal on authentic left-wing Marxism as the only adequate scientific reading of history, the basis of the program for the emancipation of the working class and its consequent social action;
2. The need for the Party to stand at the head of the proletariat for its constitution as a class and as a ruling class, in the phases of the preparation and seizure of political power, is confirmed;
3. The necessary historical course of the assumption of power and the installation of a revolutionary State, exclusively directed by the Communist Party, is reaffirmed;
4. The need for an entire phase of State dictatorship of the proletariat for the repression of counter-revolutionary attempts by the dispossessed, but not yet dispersed classes.
5. For the demolition of democracy in theory to the practical dismantling of its institutions.
6. The condemnation of the imperialist war on both sides, defeatism; the repudiation of all military alliances and putting an end to imperialist war with the revolutionary war.
We, today’s small party, claim to orient ourselves and continue to move on the lines marked out by this great and permanent magnetic field of social forces, in the certainty that the truths of October, after the fallacies and inconsistencies of false disciples and opponents over a century, will return to impose themselves on the scene of the revolutionary struggle between classes.
(1) This work is available also in French, "Structure économique et sociale de la Russie d’aujourd’hui" and in Spanish "Estructura economica y social de la Rusia actual".
In the matter of improving our State apparatus, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection should not, in my opinion, either strive after quantity or hurry. We have so far been able to devote so little thought and attention to the efficiency of our State apparatus that it would now be quite legitimate if we took special care to secure its thorough organization, and concentrated in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection a staff of workers really abreast of the times, i.e., not inferior to the best West-European standards. For a socialist republic this condition is, of course, too modest. But our experience of the first five years has fairly crammed our heads with mistrust and skepticism. These qualities assert themselves involuntarily when, for example, we hear people dilating at too great length and too flippantly on "proletarian" culture. For a start, we should be satisfied with real bourgeois culture; for a start we should be glad to dispense with the crude types of pre-bourgeois culture, i.e., bureaucratic culture or serf culture, etc. In matters of culture, haste and sweeping measures are most harmful. Many of our young writers and Communists should get this well into their heads.
Thus, in the matter of our State apparatus we should now draw the conclusion from our past experience that it would be better to proceed more slowly.
Our State apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture, that has receded into the distant past. I say culture deliberately, because in these matters we can only regard as achieved what has become part and parcel of our culture, of our social life, our habits. We might say that the good in our social system has not been properly studied, understood, and taken to heart; it has been hastily grasped at; it has not been verified or tested, corroborated by experience, and not made durable, etc. Of course, it could not be otherwise in a revolutionary epoch, when development proceeded at such break-neck speed that in a matter of five years we passed from tsarism to the Soviet system.
It is time we did something about it. We must show sound scepticism for too rapid progress, for boastfulness, etc. We must give thought to testing the steps forward we proclaim every hour, take every minute and then prove every second that they are flimsy, superficial and misunderstood. The most harmful thing here would be haste. The most harmful thing would be to rely on the assumption that we know at least something, or that we have any considerable number of elements necessary for the building of a really new State apparatus, one really worthy to be called socialist, Soviet, etc.
No, we are ridiculously deficient of such an apparatus, and even of the elements of it, and we must remember that we should not stint time on building it, and that it will take many, many years.
What elements have we for building this apparatus? Only two. First, the workers who are absorbed in the struggle of socialism. These elements are not sufficient educated. They would like to build a better apparatus for us, but they do not know how. They cannot build one. They have not yet developed the culture required for this; and it is culture that is required. Nothing will be achieved in this by doing things in a rush, by assault, by vim or vigor, or in general, by any of the best human qualities. Secondly, we have elements of knowledge, education and training, but they are ridiculously inadequate compared with all other countries.
Here we must not forget that we are too prone to compensate (or imagine that we can compensate) our lack of knowledge by zeal, haste, etc.
In order to renovate our State apparatus we must at all costs set out, first, to learn, secondly, to learn, and thirdly, to learn, and then see to it that learning shall not remain a dead letter, or a fashionable catch-phrase (and we should admit in all frankness that this happens very often with us), that learning shall really become part of our very being, that it shall actually and fully become a constituent element of our social life. In short, we must not make the demands that were made by bourgeois Western Europe, but demands that are fit and proper for a country which has set out to develop into a socialist country.
The conclusion to be drawn from the above are the following: we must make the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection a really exemplary institution, an instrument to improve our State apparatus.
In order that it may attain the desired high level, we must follow the rule: "Measure your cloth seven times before you cut".
For this purpose, we must utilise the very best of what there is in our social system, and utilise it with the greatest caution, thoughtfulness and knowledge, to build up the new People’s Commissariat.
For this purpose, the best elements that we have in our social system – such as, first, the advanced workers, and, second, the really enlightened elements for whom we can vouch that they will not take the word for the deed, and will not utter a single word that goes against their conscience – should not shrink from admitting any difficulty and should not shrink from any struggle in order to achieve the object they have seriously set themselves.
We have been bustling for five years trying to improve our State apparatus, but it has been mere bustle, which has proved useless in these five years, of even futile, or even harmful. This bustle created the impression that we were doing something, but in effect it was only clogging up our institutions and our brains.
It is high time things were changed.
We must follow the rule: Better fewer, but better. We must follow the rule: Better get good human material in two or even three years than work in haste without hope of getting any at all.
I know that it will be hard to keep to this rule and apply it under our conditions. I know that the opposite rule will force its way through a thousand loopholes. I know that enormous resistance will have to be put up, that devilish persistence will be required, that in the first few years at least work in this field will be hellishly hard. Nevertheless, I am convinced that only by such effort shall we be able to achieve our aim; and that only by achieving this aim shall we create a republic that is really worthy of the name of Soviet, socialist, and so on, and so forth.
Many readers probably thought that the figures I quoted by way of illustration in my first article [How We Should Reorganise the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection] were too small. I am sure that many calculations may be made to prove that they are. But I think that we must put one thing above all such and other calculations, i.e., our desire to obtain really exemplary quality.
I think that the time has at last come when we must work in real earnest to improve our State apparatus and in this there can scarcely be anything more harmful than haste. That is why I would sound a strong warning against inflating the figures. In my opinion, we should, on the contrary, be especially sparing with figures in this matter. Let us say frankly that the People’ s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection does not at present enjoy the slightest authority. Everybody knows that no other institutions are worse organized than those of our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, and that under present conditions nothing can be expected from this People’s Commissariat. We must have this firmly fixed in our minds if we really want to create within a few years an institution that will, first, be an exemplary institution, secondly, win everybody’s absolute confidence, and, thirdly, prove to all and sundry that we have really justified the work of such a highly placed institution as the Central Control Commission. In my opinion, we must immediately and irrevocably reject all general figures for the size of office staffs. We must select employees for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection with particular care and only on the basis of the strictest test. Indeed, what is the use of establishing a People’s Commissariat which carries on anyhow, which does not enjoy the slightest confidence, and whose word carries scarcely any weight? I think that our main object in launching the work of reconstruction that we now have in mind is to avoid all this.
The workers whom we are enlisting as members of the Central Control Commission must be irreproachable Communists, and I think that a great deal has yet to be done to teach them the methods and objects of their work. Furthermore, there must be a definite number of secretaries to assist in this work, who must be put to a triple test before they are appointed to their posts. Lastly, the officials whom in exceptional cases we shall accept directly as employees of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection must conform to the following requirements:
First, they must be recommended by several Communists.
Second, they must pass a test for knowledge of our State apparatus.
Third, they must pass a test in the fundamentals of the theory of our State apparatus, in the fundamentals of management, office routine, etc.
Fourth, they must work in such close harmony with the members of the Central Control Commission and with their own secretariat that we could vouch for the work of the whole apparatus.
I know that these requirements are extraordinarily strict, and I am very much afraid that the majority of the "practical" workers in the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection will say that these requirements are impracticable, or will scoff at them. But I ask any of the present chiefs of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, or anyone associated with that body, whether they can honestly tell me the practical purpose of a People’s Commissariat like the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection? I think this question will help them recover their sense of proportion. Either it is not worth while having another of the numerous reorganisations that we have had of this hopeless affair, the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, or we must really set to work, by slow, difficult and unusual methods, and by testing these methods over and over again, to create something really exemplary, something that will win the respect of all and sundry for its merits, and not only because of its rank and title.
If we do not arm ourselves with patience, if we do not devote several years to this task, we had better not tackle it at all.
In my opinion we ought to select a minimum number of the higher labour research institutes, etc., which we have baked so hastily, see whether they are organised properly, and allow them to continue working, but only in a way that conforms to the high standards of modern science and gives us all its benefits. If we do that it will not be utopian to hope that within a few years we shall have an institution that will be able to perform its functions, to work systematically and steadily on improving our State apparatus, an institution backed by the trust of the working class, of the Russian Communist Party, and the whole population of our Republic.
The spade-work for this could begin at once. If the People’s Commissariat of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection accepted the present plan of reogranisation, it could not take the preparatory steps and work methodically until the task is completed, without haste, and not hesitating to alter what has already been done.
Any half-hearted solution would be extremely harmful in this matter. A measure for the size of the staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection based on any other consideration would, in fact, be based on the old bureaucratic considerations, on old prejudices, on what has already been condemned, universally ridiculed, etc.
In substance, the matter is as follows:
Either we prove now that we have really learned something about State organisation (we ought to have learned something in five years), or we prove that we are not sufficiently mature for it. If the latter is the case, we had better not tackle the task.
I think that with the available human material it will not be immodest to assume that we have learned enough to be able to systematically rebuild at least one People’s Commissariat. True, this one People’s Commissariat will have to be the model for our entire State apparatus.
We ought to at once announce a contest in the compilation of two or more textbooks on the organization of labor in general, and on management in particular. We can take as a basis the book already published by Yermansky, although it should be said in parentheses that he obviously sympathizes with Menshevism and is unfit to compile textbooks for the Soviet system.
We can also take as a basis the recent book by Kerzhentsev, and some of the other partial textbooks available may be useful too.
We ought to send several qualified and conscientious people to Germany, or to Britain, to collect literature and to study this question. I mention Britain in case it is found impossible to send people to the U.S.A. or Canada.
We ought to appoint a commission to draw up the preliminary program of examinations for prospective employees of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection; ditto for candidates to the Central Control Commission.
These and similar measures will not, of course, cause any difficulties for the People’s Commissar or the collegium of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection, or for the Presidium of the Central Control Commission.
Simultaneously, a preparatory commission should be appointed to select candidates for membership of the Central Control Commission. I hope that we shall now be able to find more than enough candidates for this post among the experienced workers in all departments, as well as among the students of our Soviet higher schools. It would hardly be right to exclude one or another category beforehand. Probably preference will have to be given to a mixed composition for this institution, which should combine many qualities, and dissimilar merits. Consequently, the tasks of drawing up the list of candidates will entail a considerable amount of work. For example, it would be least desirable for the staff of the new People’s Commissariat to consist of people of one type, only of officials, say, or for it to exclude people of the propagandist type, or people whose principal quality is sociability or the ability to penetrate into circles that are not altogether customary for officials in this field, etc.
I think I shall be able to express my idea best if I compare my plan with that of academic institutions. Under the guidance of their Presidium, the members of the Central Control Commission should systematically examine all the paper and documents of the Political Bureau. Moreover, they should divide their time correctly between various jobs in investigating the routine in our institutions, form the very small and privately-owned offices to the highest State institutions. And lastly, their functions should include the study of theory, i.e., the theory of organisation of the work they intend to devote themselves to, and practical work under the guidance of other comrades or of teachers in the higher institutes for the organisation of labour.
I do not think, however, that they will be able to confine themselves to this sort of academic work. In addition, they will have to prepare themselves for working which I would not hesitate to call training to catch, I will not say rouges, but something like that, and working out special ruses to screen their movements, their approach, etc.
If such proposals were made in West-European government institutions they would rouse frightful resentment, a feeling of moral indignation, etc.; but I trust that we have not become so bureaucratic as to be capable of that. NEP has not yet succeeded in gaining such respect as to cause any of us to be shocked at the idea somebody may be caught. Our Soviet Republic is of such recent construction, and there are such heaps of the old lumber still lying around that it would hardly occur to anyone to be shocked at the idea that we should delve into them by means of ruses, by means of investigations sometimes directed to rather remote sources or in a roundabout way. And even if it did occur to anyone to be shocked by this, we may be sure that such a person would make himself a laughing-stock.
Let us hope that our new Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection will abandon what the French call pruderie, which we may call ridiculous primness, or ridiculous swank, and which plays entirely into the hands of our Soviet and Party bureaucracy. Let it be said in parentheses that we have bureaucrats in our Party offices as well as in Soviet offices.
When I said above that we must study and study hard in institutes for the higher organisation of labour, etc., I did not by any means imply "studying" in the schoolroom way, nor did I confine myself to the idea of studying only in the schoolroom way. I hope that not a single genuine revolutionary will suspect me of refusing, in this case, to understand "studies" to include resorting to some semi-humourous trick, cunning device, piece of trickery or something of that sort. I know that in the staid and earnest States of Western European such an idea would horrify people and that not a single decent official would even entertain it. I hope, however, that we have not yet become as bureaucratic as all that and that in our midst the discussion of this idea will give rise to nothing more than amusement.
Indeed, why not combine pleasure with utility? Why not resort to some humourous or semi-humorous trick to expose something ridiculous, something harmful, something semi-ridiculous, semi-harmful, etc.?
It seems to me that our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection will gain a great deal if it undertakes to examine these ideas, and that the list of cases in which our Central Control Commission and its colleagues in the Workers and Peasants’ Inspection achieved a few of their most brilliant victories will be enriched by not a few exploits of our future Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection and Central Control Commission members in places not quite mentionable in prim and staid textbooks.
How can a Party institution be amalgamated with a Soviet institution? Is there not something improper in this suggestion?
I do not ask these questions on my own behalf, but on behalf of those I hinted at above when I said that we have bureaucrats in our Party institutions as well as in the Soviet institutions.
But why, indeed, should we not amalgamate the two if this is in the interests of our work? Do we not all see that such an amalgamation has been very beneficial in the case of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, where it was brought about at the very beginning? Does not the Political Bureau discuss from the Party point of view many questions, both minor and important, concerning the "moves" we should make in reply to the "moves" of foreign powers in order to forestall their, say, cunning, if we are not to use a less respectable term? Is not this flexible amalgamation of a Soviet institution with a Party institution a source of great strength in our politics? I think that what has proved its usefulness, what has been definitely adopted in our foreign politics and has become so customary that it no longer calls forth any doubt in this field, will be at least as appropriate (in fact, I think it will be much more appropriate) for our State apparatus as a whole. The functions of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection cover our State apparatus as a whole, and its activities should affect all and every State institution without exception: local, central, commercial, purely administrative, educational, archival, theatrical, etc. – in short, all without any exception.
Why then should not an institution, whose activities have such wide scope, and which moreover requires such extraordinary flexibility of forms, be permitted to adopt this peculiar amalgamation of a Party control institution with a Soviet control institution?
I see no obstacles to this. What is more, I think that such an amalgamation is the only guarantee of success in our work. I think that all doubts on this score arise in the dustiest corners of our government offices, and that they deserve to be treated with nothing but ridicule.
Another doubt: is it expedient to combine educational activities with official activities? I think that it is not only expedient, but necessary. Generally speaking, in spite of our revolutionary attitude towards the West-European form of State, we have allowed ourselves to become infected with a number of its most harmful and ridiculous prejudices; to some extent we have been deliberately infected with them by our dear bureaucrats, who counted on being able again and again to fish in the muddy waters of these prejudices. And they did fish in these muddy waters to so great an extent that only the blind among us failed to see how extensively this fishing was practiced.
In all spheres of social, economic and political relationships we are "frightfully" revolutionary. But as regards precedence, the observance of the forms and rites of office management, our "revolutionariness" often gives way to the mustiest routine. On more than one occasion, we have witnessed the very interesting phenomenon of a great leap forward in social life being accompanied by amazing timidity whenever the slightest changes are proposed.
This is natural, for the boldest steps forward were taken in a field which was long reserved for theoretical study, which was promoted mainly, and even almost exclusively, in theory. The Russian, when away from work, found solace from bleak bureaucratic realities in unusually bold theoretical constructions, and that is why in our country these unusually bold theoretical constructions assumed an unusually lopsided character. Theoretical audacity in general constructions went hand in hand with amazing timidity as regards certain very minor reforms in office routine. Some great universal agrarian revolution was worked out with an audacity unexampled in any other country, and at the same time the imagination failed when it came to working out a tenth-rate reform in office routine; the imagination, or patience, was lacking to apply to this reform the general propositions that produced such brilliant results when applied to general problems.
That is why in our present life reckless audacity goes hand in hand, to an astonishing degree, with timidity of thought even when it comes to very minor changes.
I think that this has happened in all really great revolutions, for really great revolutions grow out of the contradictions between the old, between what is directed towards developing the old, and the very abstract striving for the new, which must be so new as not to contain the tiniest particle of the old.
And the more abrupt the revolution, the longer will many of these contradictions last.
The general feature of our present life is the following: we have destroyed capitalist industry and have done our best to raze to the ground the medieval institutions and landed proprietorship, and thus created a small and very small peasantry, which is following the lead of the proletariat because it believes in the results of its revolutionary work. It is not easy for us, however, to keep going until the socialist revolution is victorious in more developed countries merely with the aid of this confidence, because economic necessity, especially under NEP, keeps the productivity of labor of the small and very small peasants at an extremely low level. Moreover, the international situation, too, threw Russia back and, by and large, reduced the labor productivity of the people to a level considerably below pre-war. The West-European capitalist powers, partly deliberately and partly unconsciously, did everything they could to throw us back, to utilise the elements of the Civil War in Russia in order to spread as much ruin in the country as possible. It was precisely this way out of the imperialist war that seemed to have many advantages. They argued somewhat as follows: "If we fail to overthrow the revolutionary system in Russia, we shall, at all events, hinder its progress towards socialism". And from their point of view they could argue in no other way. In the end, their problem was half-solved. They failed to overthrow the new system created by the revolution, but they did prevent it from at once taking the step forward that would have justified the forecasts of the socialists, that would have enabled the latter to develop the productive forces with enormous speed, to develop all the potentialities which, taken together, would have produced socialism; socialists would thus have proved to all and sundry that socialism contains within itself gigantic forces and that mankind had now entered in to a new stage of development of extraordinarily brilliant prospects.
The system of international relationships which has now taken shape is one in which a European State, Germany, is enslaved by the victor countries. Furthermore, owing to their victory, a number of States, the oldest States in the West, are in a position to make some insignificant concessions to their oppressed classes – concessions which, insignificant though they are, nevertheless heard the revolutionary movement in those countries and create some semblance of "class truce".
At the same time, as a result of the last imperialist war, a number of countries of the East, India, China, etc, have been completely jolted out of the rut. Their development has definitely shifted to general European capitalist lines. The general European ferment has begun to affect them, and it is now clear to the whole world that they have been drawn into a process of development that must lead to a crisis in the whole of world capitalism.
Thus, at the present time we are confronted with the question – shall we be able to hold on with our small and very small peasant production, and in our present state of ruin, until the West-European capitalist countries consummate their development towards socialism? But they are consummating it not as we formerly expected. They are not consummating it through the gradual "maturing" of socialism, but through the exploitation of some countries by others, through the exploitation of the first of the countries vanquished in the imperialist war combined with the exploitation of the whole of the East. On the other hand, precisely as a result of the first imperialist war, the East has been definitely drawn into the revolutionary movement, has been definitely drawn into the general maelstrom of the world revolutionary movement.
What tactics does this situation prescribe for our country? Obviously the following. We must display extreme caution so as to preserve our workers’ government and to retain our small and very small peasantry under its leadership and authority. We have the advantage that the whole world is now passing to a movement that must give rise to a world socialist revolution. But we are labouring under the disadvantage that the imperialists have succeeded in splitting the world into two camps; and this split is made more complicated by the fact that it is extremely difficult for Germany, which is really a land of advanced, cultured, capitalist development, to rise to her feet. All the capitalist powers of what is called the West are pecking at her and preventing her from rising. On the other hand, the entire East, with its hundred of millions of exploited working people, reduced to the last degree of human suffering, has been forced into a position where its physical and material strength cannot possibly be compared with the physical, material and military strength of any of the much smaller West-European States.
Can we save ourselves from the impending conflict with these imperialist countries? May we hope that the internal antagonisms and conflicts between the thriving imperialist countries of the East will give us a second respite as they did the first time, when the campaign of the West-European counter-revolution in support of the Russian counter-revolution broke down owing to the antagonisms in the camp of the counter-revolutionaries of the West and the East, in the camp of th Eastern and Western exploiters, in the camp of Japan and the U.S.A.?
I think the reply to this question should be that the issue depends upon too many factors, and that the outcome of the struggle as a whole can be forecast only because in the long run capitalism itself is educating and training the vast majority of the population of the globe for the struggle.
In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe. And during the past few years it is this majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome of the world struggle will be. In this sense, the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured.
But what interests us is not the inevitability of this complete victory of socialism, but the tactics which we, the Russian Communist Party, we the Russian Soviet Government, should pursue to prevent the West-European counter-revolutionary States form crushing us. To ensure our existence until the next military conflict between the counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East, between the most civilised countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, compromise the majority, this majority must become civilised. We, too, lack enough civilisation to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requisites for it. We should adopt the following tactics, or pursue the following policy, to save ourselves.
We must strive to build up a State in which the workers retain leadership of the peasants, in which they retain the confidence of the peasants, and by exercising the greatest economy remove every trace of extravagance from our social relations.
We must reduce our State apparatus to the utmost degree of economy. We must banish from it all traces of extravagance, of which so much has been left over from tsarist Russia, form its bureaucratic capitalist State machine.
Will not this be a reign of peasant limitations?
No. If we see to it that the working class retains its leadership over the peasantry, we shall be able, by exercising the greatest possible thrift in the economic life of our State, to use every saving we make to develop our large-scale machine industry, to develop electrification, the hydraulic extraction of peat, to complete the Volkhov Power Project, etc.
In this, and in this alone, lies our hope. Only when we have done this shall we, speaking figuratively, be able to change horses, to change from the peasant, muzhik horse of poverty, from the horse of an economy designed for a ruined peasant country, to the horse which the proletariat is seeking and must seek – the horse of large-scale machine industry, of electrification, of the Volkhov Power Station, etc.
That is how I link up in my mind the general plan of our work, of our policy, of our tactics, of our strategy, with the functions of the reorganized Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. This is what, in my opinion, justifies the exceptional care, the exceptional attention that we must devote to the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection in raising it to an exceptionally high level, in giving it a leadership with Central Committee rights, etc., etc.
And this justification is that only by thoroughly purging our government machine, by reducing it to the utmost everything that is not absolutely essential in it, shall we be certain of being able to keep going. Moreover, we shall be able to keep going not on the level of a small-peasant country, not on the level of universal limitation, but on a level steadily advancing to large-scale machine industry.
These are the lofty tasks that I dream of for our Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspection. That is why I am planning for it the amalgamation of the most authoritative Party body with an "ordinary" People’s Commissariat.
In 2013 in Dublin the centenary celebrations of the famous Lock-out took place. To mark the occasion there were plays, historical re-enactments, issues of commemorative postage stamps, art exhibitions, lectures, and a mass of publications. And many of the celebrations would receive the hesitant endorsement of official and government bodies, because the 1913-14 Lock-out, much to the chagrin of the Irish bourgeoisie, cannot be ignored: it has become inextricably bound up with the ‘national mythos’ of Ireland.
But the aim of those socialists who adopted the counsels of Marxism, even during the independence struggle, was not just an independent Ireland, but an Ireland run by the working class in the interests of the working class. Thus there was a wide gulf between their aims and those of the bourgeois nationalists who would eventually triumph. For the bourgeois nationalists, labour needed to repudiate socialism and resume its rightful place as the humble servant of the nation. This was the programme of Sinn Fein, such that its leader and future Irish president, Arthur Griffiths, revealingly stated during the Lock Out that he wanted to see every last one of the workers bayoneted.
However the continued and unavoidable presence of socialist leaders such as Connolly and Larkin in the pantheon of Irish nationalism means that today the bourgeoisie still has to try and conceal the goals that the proletarian party was pursuing during the independence struggle: that of a communist Ireland.
In Marx’s time, Ireland was to England what Poland was to Russia, and we could add what Algeria was to France. Ireland and Poland had this in common: that their enslavement was the basis of the two great pillars of European reaction: landlordism in England and the Holy Alliance on the continent.
The story of British rule is one of pillage and infamy. In Ireland British imperialism was only ever maintained as a state of permanent siege, to prevent the social revolution and the expropriation of the landlord. For the overwhelming majority of the Irish people the independence of Ireland was a matter of life or death. But more than that, the immense wealth that the English bourgeoisie extracted from Ireland allowed it to corrupt a section of the English proletariat, resulting in the latter supporting the imperialism and chauvinism of its own bourgeoisie. Thus the English proletariat propped up the English bourgeoisie, just as the latter supported the English aristocracy. In this situation there was no possibility of unity between the English workers and Irish workers, who meanwhile made up a large part of the industrial proletariat in England. Thus for Marx the independence of Ireland, or at least its exit from the Union and a greater autonomy within a federal State, would constitute the sine qua non of any social revolution in England.
The settlement of the Irish national question in 1921, after the War of Independence, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was far from conclusive and the differences between the Pro and Anti-Treaty factions would lead to a two year Civil War. Indeed some might say the national question was only resolved in 1937, when De Valera’s party, representing the old Anti-Treaty faction, constituted a Republic in all but name; or in 1938, when the ’economic war’ caused by Ireland’s non-payment of the £3,000,000 annual debt due to the English Government under the terms of the pre-treaty agrarian reforms, came to an end, and England abandoned certain naval and military rights it had obtained under the Treaty in specified Irish ports.
But the six counties in the North remained under the control of a Protestant elite, whose interests were best served by remaining a part of the United Kingdom. The continued oppression by this elite of the Catholic population, treated like an underclass, which was severely disadvantaged in regards to access to land, jobs and housing, continued to fuel an ongoing Irish irredentism up to the present day. To Catholics in the North, unity with their co-religionists in the South continued to present itself as a tempting solution to their predicament.
And thus the embers of nationalism continued to smoulder, finally bursting into flame during the years of the ‘Troubles’, at their most intense between 1970 and the late 1990s.
After countless deaths in what would become a long and brutal sectarian war, the Catholic population of the North would eventually win a number of concessions. Bourgeois Catholics and nationalists would finally be admitted as full partners in government and as participants its democratic rituals, with the aim, of course, of protecting its economic interests. But this would necessarily entail them having to perpetuate and reinforce their stranglehold over the working class; the source of the bourgeoisie’s profits, of whatever religious persuasion. Catholic proletarians would find that the conditions of equality obtained by their Catholic bosses would give them, their employees, few advantages and that they still had a world to win.
As Protestant triumphalism and overt Irish Catholic nationalism slowly reduced over the years, so the ancient sources of bad will between the two historic communities of the coloniser and the colonised receded further into the background, and what there was would come to be expressed more and more by means of chummy banter in debates in the Stormont Parliament. What sectarian ‘militancy’ now remains, regarding the routes of parades and how and when the Union Jack may be displayed and so on, are coming to appear increasingly anachronistic; although we can be pretty certain that the bourgeoisie will continue to stoke the fires of sectarianism in order to “divide and rule” the working class.
In Ulster, whether it eventually becomes united with the South, remains part of the United Kingdom, or establishes itself as a separate political entity, the task of communists is the same as elsewhere: to build an international party, the conscious expression of the global working class. Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the national movement moved into its culminating phase, the early Marxists in Ireland could already see this, and were making every effort to bridge the sectarian divide and unify the strategy of the workers’ parties in Ireland and on the British mainland.
In recommencing our study of the Irish Question, our point of departure, and sound basis, will be a number of quotations from the extensive writings of Marx and Engel, as mentioned in previous Party studies.
In the chapters that follow we will go on to document in more detail the bitter clashes which took place between the different parties and classes in Ireland and English imperialism, ranging from the final decades of the 19th century to the First World War and on to the achievement of an independent State by the Irish bourgeoisie. In particular we will describe the rising wave of workers’ struggle in Ireland which culminated in the Dublin Lockout of 1913, the greatest and most radical strike that had ever taken place on the island, and a key episode in the unfolding international battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Report presented at the party general meeting in Genoa, May 2014
The first writing we examined was the draft History of Ireland (1) which Engels worked on from the end of 1869 to the middle of 1870, but of which he only completed the first chapter on “Natural Conditions”, which discussed the island’s physical characteristics, and part of the second, on “Old Ireland”, which covered the early history up to the defeat of Viking invaders at the battle of Clontarf in 1014. A few significant extracts from that work appear below.
“Between Ireland and the rest of Europe another island lies transversally, three times the size, which we for brevity’s sake usually refer to as England; it completely encloses Ireland from the north, east and south-east, only leaving it a clear view in the direction of Spain, Western France and America.
“The channel between the two islands, 50-70 English miles wide at the narrowest points in the south, 13 miles wide at one place in the north and 22 miles at another, enabled the Irish Scots in the north to emigrate to the neighbouring island and found the Kingdom of Scotland even before the 5th century. In the south it was too wide for the boats of the Irish and the Britons and even posed a serious obstacle to the Romans’ flat-bottomed coasting vessels. But when the Frisians, Angles and Saxons, and after them the Scandinavians, ventured out on to the high sea, out of sight of land, in their keeled vessels, this channel was no longer an obstacle. Ireland became the object of raids by the Scandinavians and easy prey for the English. As soon as the Normans had formed a strong, uniform government in England, the influence of the larger neighbouring Island made itself felt – in those days this meant a war of conquest (…)
“Once the whole of the larger island was finally united in a single State, it was then bound to attempt the complete assimilation of Ireland, too.
“If this assimilation had been successful, its whole course would have become a matter of history. It would be subject to its judgement but could never be reversed. But if after seven hundred years of fighting this assimilation has not succeeded; if instead each new wave of invaders flooding Ireland is assimilated by the Irish; if, even today, the Irish are as far from being English, or West Britons, as they say, as the Poles are from being West Russians after only 100 years of oppression; if the fighting is not yet over and there is no prospect that it can be ended in any other way than by the extermination of the oppressed race – then, all the geographical pretexts in the world are not enough to prove that it is England’s mission to conquer Ireland”.
The Island’s geology
“In order to understand the soil conditions of present-day Ireland, we must go back a long way, right back to the age when the so-called carboniferous system was formed (…)
The entire central plain of Ireland is a result of denudation, so that, the coal-measures and the upper limestone deposits have been washed way (…)”
So it turns out Ireland found itself with little coal, and of an inferior quality. Engels concludes that:
“Ireland’s misfortune is ancient indeed: it commences immediately after the coal-measures were deposited. A country whose coal deposits have been washed away, situated right next to a larger country with plenty of coal, was condemned by nature, as it were, to play the part of a farming land vis-à-vis the future industrial country. This sentence, pronounced millions of years ago, was not carried out until this century. What is more, we shall see later how the English gave nature a helping hand by immediately and violently trampling underfoot almost any sign of burgeoning industry in Ireland”.
Soil and crops
Engels goes on to disprove the myth propagated by the English landowners and bourgeoisie that Ireland was not suited to tillage but only to pasturage, and therefore only to providing England with meat and dairy products while the Irish themselves, without bread, would have to emigrate to make way for the sheep and cattle.
“It is evident that all the authorities are agreed that the soil of Ireland contains all the elements of fertility to an unusual degree, with regard to both its chemical constituents and its physical composition. The extremes – sticky, impenetrable clay, which allows no water through, and loose sand, which does not retain it for an hour – are nowhere to be found. Yet Ireland has another disadvantage. While the mountains are mainly along the coast, the watersheds between the different river basins in the interior of the country are mostly very low-lying. The rivers are not able to drain off all the rainwater into the sea, and this gives rise to extensive peat bogs (…) But each one of these peat bogs contains within itself the material for its own reclamation and cultivation” (…)
“The oldest report on the Irish climate is provided by the Roman Pomponius Mela (De situ orbis) in the first century A. D. It says: “Beyond Britain lies Hibernia (2), almost equal to it in extent but otherwise similar; of a rather long shape, with skies adverse to the ripening seed; but abounding in grass not only luxuriant but also sweet, so that a small part of the day suffices for the cattle to eat their fill, and if they are not removed from the pasture they will go on grazing until they burst”.
“If one looks at the matter impartially and without being misled by the cries of the interested parties, the Irish landowners and the English bourgeoisie, one finds that Ireland, like all other places, has some parts which because of soil and climate are more suited to cattle-rearing, and others to tillage, and still others – the vast majority – which are suited to both. Compared with England, Ireland is more suited to cattle-rearing on the whole; but if England is compared with France, she too is more suited to cattle-rearing. Are we to conclude that the whole of England should be transformed into cattle pastures, and the whole agricultural population be sent into the factory towns or to America – except for a few herdsmen – to make room for cattle, which are to be exported to France in exchange for silk and wine? But that is exactly what the Irish landowners who want to put up their rents and the English bourgeoisie who want to decrease wages demand for Ireland (…)
“And yet the social revolution inherent in this transformation from tillage to cattle-rearing would be far greater in Ireland that in England. In England, where large-scale agriculture prevails and where agricultural labourers have already been replaced by machinery to a large extent, it would mean the transplantation of at most one million; in Ireland, where small and even cottage-farming prevails, it would mean the transplantation of four million: the extermination of the Irish people.
“It can be seen that even the facts of nature become points of national controversy between England and Ireland. It can also be seen, however, how the public opinion of the ruling class in England – and it is only this that is generally known on the Continent – changes with fashion and in its own interests. Today England needs grain quickly and dependably – Ireland is just perfect for wheat-growing. Tomorrow England needs meat – Ireland is only fit for cattle pastures. The existence of five million Irish is in itself a smack in the eye to all the laws of political economy, they have to get out but where to is their worry!”
The Irish peasant class was essentially composed of small farmers who paid a rent, in money or in kind, to the proprietor, who was almost always English. The transformation of a part of the cultivated land into pasture, imposed by the English landed proprietors, led to famines and the death of a large part of the population.
Recent archaeological discoveries have established that there was no single continuous ethnic population in Ireland during prehistoric times. The thick layers of ash deposited in northern England and northern Ireland resulting from the three catastrophic eruptions of the Hekla volcano in Iceland had a significant effect in terms of severely restricting the growth of vegetation and necessarily prompted migration from these areas. The eruption in 2354BC lasted nine years and more or less coincides with current estimates of the ending of the Neolithic Age and the beginning of the copper/bronze age. The eruption in 1154BC lasted for a decade and roughly coincides with the middle Bronze Age. The movements of people in the region at this time, along with others in northern Europe may have been connected with the invasion of the Sea Peoples in the Mediterranean. The eruption in 950BC coincides with the ending of the Bronze Age. The Celtic conquest in the subsequent Iron Age, linked to new forms of agriculture and animal husbandry, was facilitated by the destruction and disruption wrought by this most recent eruption.
After the Celtic conquest of Gaul, southern Britain and Ireland, there still remained important features inherited from the previous society: women’s rights, an artisan class and the priestly cast of Druids, which did not exist in other Celtic areas. Over the millennia there were several further waves of immigration by various peoples, but when the Irish make their first appearance in history they constitute a homogeneous people with a Celtic culture.
In the course of the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the 5th to 7th Century, the Celtic speaking Britons were pushed towards the western and northern regions of the larger island, into Scotland, Wales and Cornwall, and across to Brittany. These areas, facing on to the smaller island, would maintain a certain shared Celtic identity with Ireland, reinforced by trade, tribal wars, invasions and migrations.
Ireland possesses a rich literature, despite the destruction of a large part of it during the devastating wars conducted by England in the 16th and 17th centuries. And under British domination only a small part of these works could be published, and not necessarily the most interesting.
Resuming our quotation from Engels’ History:
“Christianity must have penetrated Ireland quite early, at least the east coast of it. Otherwise the fact that so many Irishmen played an important part in Church-history even long before Patrick cannot be explained” (…)
“The Irish people are called Scots and the land Scotia in all the writings of the early Middle Ages (…) The present Scotland was called Caledonia by foreigners and Alba, Albania by the inhabitants; the transfer of the name Scotia, Scotland, to the northern area of the eastern isle did not occur until the 11th century. The first substantial emigration of Irish Scots to Alba is taken to have been in the middle of the third century; Ammianus Marcellinus already knows them there in the year 360. The emigrants used the shortest sea-route, from Antrim to the peninsula of Kintyre (…) Large numbers of Scots came over again at about the year 500, and they gradually formed a kingdom, independent of both Ireland and the Picts. They finally subdued the Picts in the ninth century under Kenneth MacAlpin and created the State to which the name Scotland, Scotia was transferred, probably first by the Norsemen about 150 years later”.
“Ireland was known throughout Europe as a nursery of learning, so much so that Charlemagne summoned an Irish monk, Albinus, to teach at Pavia, where another Irishman, Dungal, followed him later. The most important of the many Irish scholars, who were famous at that time but are now mostly forgotten, was the ‘Father,’ or as Erdmann calls him, the ‘Carolus Magnus’ [Charles the Great] of philosophy in the Middle Ages – Johannes Scotus Erigena. Hegel says of him, ‘Real philosophy began first with him’ (…) by his translation of the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, he restored the link with the last branch of the old philosophy, the Alexandrian Neoplatonic school. His teaching was very bold for the time. He denied the ‘eternity of damnation’, even for the devil, and brushed close to Pantheism. Contemporary orthodoxy, therefore, did not fail to slander him.
“Ireland was far from being inhabited by a single nation at the end of the eighth century. Supreme royal power over the whole island existed only in appearance, and by no means always at that. The provincial kings, whose number and territories were continually changing, fought amongst themselves, and the smaller territorial princes likewise carried on their private feuds. On the whole, however, these internal wars seem to have been governed by certain customs which held the ravages within certain limits, so that the country did not suffer too much.
“But this was not to last. In 795, a few years after the English had been first raided by the same plundering nation, Norsemen landed on the isle of Rathlin, off the coast of Antrim, and burnt everything down; in 798, they landed near Dublin, and after this they are mentioned nearly every year in the annals as heathens, foreigners, pirates, and never without additional reports of the losccadh (burning down) of one or more places. Their colonies on the Orkneys, Shetlands and Hebrides (Southern Isles, Sudhreyjar in the old Norse sagas) served them as operational bases against Ireland, and against what was later known as Scotland, and against England”.
These invasions continued, with varying degrees of success, until the famous Battle of Clontarf, not far from Dublin, April 23, 1014, where the Vikings suffered a painful defeat by the Irish troops led by Brian Boru. This decisive battle definitively ended the Viking raids.
Here, unfortunately, Engel’s History breaks off, but we do have an outline of a speech on the Irish question, referring to the subsequent period, delivered by Marx on December 16, 1867 to the German Workers’ Educational Association in London (3). The question would have been of especial interest to the Germans, the “migrants” of that period.
Before the Protestant Reformation
The English invasion got underway in 1169.
In 1172 Henry II had conquered than a third of the country. A nominal conquest. A gift from Pope Adrian IV, an Englishman. Some 400 years later another Pope (in 1576, in Elizabethan times) Gregory XIII, took back the present from the English (Elizabeth). The capital of the “English Pale” was Dublin. Mixing of English common colonists with Irish, and of Anglo-Norman nobles with Irish chiefs. Otherwise, the war of conquest was conducted (originally) as against Red Indians. No English reinforcements sent to Ireland until 1565 (Elizabeth)”.
The 14th to 15th centuries witnessed a renewal of Irish society: the economy developed, Celtic culture flourished and the old English conquerors ended up intermarrying with the native population and adopting the Celtic language.
The Elizabethan Reconquest
The English monarchy realised that it was losing control of the situation. In the 15th century the Tudors – Henry VIII and Elizabeth – took up the reconquest of Ireland, which concluded with the Flight of the Earls in 1609. The reconquest led to the massive expulsion of peasants in Ulster and Munster and their replacement by British colonists. The situation was therefore especially terrible for the native population, which could no longer own or rent plots of land, or even work on the land held by the colonists. Two passages from Marx:
“Elizabeth. The plan was to exterminate the Irish at least up to the River Shannon, to take their land and settle English colonists in their place, etc. In battles against Elizabeth the still Catholic Anglo-Irish fought the English alongside the natives. The avowed plan of the English: Clearing the island of the natives, and stocking it with loyal Englishmen. They succeeded only to plant a landowning aristocracy. English Protestant ‘adventurers’ (merchants, usurers), who obtained from the English crown the confiscated lands, and ‘gentlemen undertakers’, who were to plant the ceded estates with native English families”.
“In Ireland apart from ‘conversion’, the openly acknowledged objective of the government was to find a pretext for pillage. ‘Reform’, from its inception, had ‘pillage’ engraved on its forehead, but in Ireland it was nothing but pillage from head to toe. In Ireland, Bess (4) allowed massacres to be perpetrated on a grand scale, brigandage and butchery without end. She sent to Ireland the same clergymen whose successors still live there today. The incessantly bloodied sword guaranteed their tithes and the land. In England, she was forced to enact the poor law (in the 43rd year of her reign) but for the looters whose regime she sanctioned ‘England was a place where they could raise armies to send them to fight in Ireland for their interests.’ And it was the permission to loot that attracted these armies” (Marx, The Ethnological Notebooks, 1883).
The First National Insurrection
In 1641 an agrarian crisis led to a famine. In this context a group from the petty nobility tried to take possession of strategic points with a view to liberating Ireland, which led to a general insurrection. With the aim of regaining their land, the Irish peasants attacked the colonists, who were murdered or expelled. The Irish nobility then took control of the movement for national liberation and transformed the peasant uprising into a classic war. It stopped the attacks against the colonists and formed a national government: the “Irish Confederation”. Marx, in a plan for a report on the Irish question, spoke of the “First national revolt of Ireland” and of the “Irish revolution of 1641”.
The civil war brought a favourable situation for the Irish population. To begin with the Confederation tried to obtain the King of England’s recognition of Irish autonomy, then in 1646 it declared its independence and tried to liberate the whole territory. During this time the peasants took back half of the colonised lands. At the same time the constitution of the Confederation declared liberty of conscience and religion across the entire country, which at the time, made it the most advanced constitution in the world.
Cromwell’s Campaign in Ireland
In this second reconquest of Ireland the ignominy and cruelty of Cromwell’s troops knew no bounds. The English ruling class – essentially the big landowners but also the financiers and industrialists – would reveal the extent of its bestiality and ferocity. In 1649 Cromwell disembarked at the head of his troops and organised a massacre. In contrast to Napoleon who, though also an imperialist, exported the French Revolution on the European continent by abolishing feudal privileges and introducing bourgeois legislation, while at the same time developing the nucleus of large-scale industry, Cromwell behaved like a pure imperialist, uniquely defending the interests of the English landowning bourgeoisie, and secondarily those of the industrial bourgeoisie, by ruining all industry in Ireland.
It was true genocide: between a third and a half of the population was massacred. William Petty, the first demographer and statistician, wrote that at least 400,000 people were massacred, but that it could have been more than 600,000, two-thirds of whom were civilians. Before this genocide, the Irish population was estimated to be around 1,500,000 inhabitants.
In a letter to Jenny Longuet of February 24, 1881, Engels describes the reconquest of Ireland and says that it brings to mind an English chauvinist who compares Ireland at the time of Cromwell to the Vendée:
Ireland was Catholic, Protestant England Republican, therefore Ireland-English Vendée. There is however this little difference that the French Revolution intended to give the land to the people, the English Commonwealth intended, in Ireland, to take the land from the people. The whole Protestant reformation, as is well known to most students of history (…) was a vast plan for a confiscation of land. First the land was taken from the Church. Then the Catholics, in countries where Protestantism was in power, were declared rebels and their land confiscated”.
But the tragedy and the agony of the Catholics, that’s to say of the Irish people, did not stop there. Under Cromwell 100,000 women and children between 10 and 14 years old were sold as slaves in the English colonies of America. (See White Cargo by Don Jordan and Michael Walsh).
The subjugation of Ireland reinforced the most reactionary and infamous layer within the English bourgeoisie: the landowners. And Cromwell, far from serving the revolution, on the contrary reinforced reaction in England itself. The English Republic paid the price for this bloody and pitiless subjugation of Ireland. By reinforcing the economic power of English landowners, it provided the basis for the restoration: at its death the House of Lords was re-established, together with the monarchy. In a letter to Ludwig Kugelmann dated 29 August 1869, Marx would write, “As a matter of fact, the English Republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in – Ireland”.
In 1688, the new King of England James II was overthrown. He tried to win back the throne by disembarking in Ireland and seeking the support of the Anglo-Irish nobility. After his defeat by Prince William of Orange – his nephew, who had married his daughter Mary – the English ruling class completed the pauperisation and subjugation of the population and gained total control of the Irish economy.
Further discriminatory measures were applied against the Catholics and all of the land, along with the little industry that remained, was handed over to various English land magnates and adventurers – traders, industrialists and businessmen etc. Moreover, direct commerce between Ireland and foreign countries was completely forbidden, England being the only outlet and the arbiter of prices. The weaving of wool was also forbidden. In a word, Ireland became a full colony, like America, Australia and South Africa but under much worse conditions. This situation of economic submission explains why later on certain bourgeois Protestants in Ulster, although of English origin, would join the fight for Ireland’s independence.
In 1640 the natives and the old English held 60% of the land; in 1660 it was no more than 8-9%.
Ireland During the American and French Revolutions
On the eve of the American Revolution the Catholics, that is the three-quarters of the population who were Irish, were deprived of all rights. The “Irish” parliament, like that of England, consisted of two chambers: the House of Lords, whose members were drawn from the landed aristocracy, all of English origin, and the House of Commons, elected by the Protestants, who were English in origin by the overwhelming majority.
In Eccarius’s record of Karl Marx’s speech to the German Workers’ Educational Society in London on December 16, 1867, referred to above, we read a striking description of the Irish situation at this time:
“Under William III, a class came to power which only wanted to make money, and Irish industry was suppressed in order to force the Irish to sell their raw materials to England at any price. With the help of the Protestant Penal Laws, the new aristocrats received freedom of action under Queen Anne. The Irish Parliament was a means of oppression. Those who were Catholic were not allowed to hold an official post, could not be landowners, were not allowed to make wills, could not claim an inheritance; to be a Catholic bishop was high treason. All these were means for robbing the Irish of their land; yet over 50 per cent of the English descendants in Ulster have remained Catholic. The people were driven into the arms of the Catholic clergy, who thus became powerful. All that the English government succeeded in doing was to plant an aristocracy in Ireland. The towns built by the English have become Irish. That is why there are so many English names among the Fenians”.
The breath of revolution from America, then France, spread to the island. The Catholics, who up to now had been pleading for an attenuation of the Protestant law, again raised their heads and made their voices heard. The Protestants themselves, hitherto considered by the British government to be their gaolers and their bailiffs, demanded more autonomy and above all freedom of trade: the island’s colonial status restricted their trade and above all stifled all industrial development. And this last question was, by its very nature, one of national interest.
The Irish resolved to adopt an agreement forbidding the import and consumption of British manufactured goods. As soon as this measure was publicly put forward, it was universally accepted throughout the country.
Moreover the international situation was favourable to a national emancipation movement: England found itself at war first with America and then with France, and was even threatened by a French military invasion. This situation weakened England and forced it to withdraw its garrisons from Ireland.
The revolutionary movement in Ireland deepened and clarified the class relations at the heart of the communities, pushing out the most conservative and reactionary elements, and leading in 1791 to the creation of the United Irishmen, which brought together both Catholics and Protestants.
“From this moment, the Volunteers movement fused with that of the United Irishmen. The Catholic question transformed into that of the people of Ireland. The question was no longer about giving rights back to the Catholic upper and middle class, but about emancipating Irish peasants, the large majority of whom were Catholics” (Marx, Ireland from the American Revolution to the Union of 1801).
Under these conditions England loosened its grip on Ireland and was forced to make concessions. Here is what Engels had to say about it in a letter to Jenny Longuet (February 24, 1881):
The Abolition of the Penal Laws! Why the greater part of them were repealed, not in 1793 but in 1778, when England was threatened by the rise of the American Republic, and the second repeal, 1793, was when the French Republic arose threatening and England required all the soldiers she could get to fight it!
During this period Irish industry experienced a new growth and the material situation of the population improved. The law regarding Catholics became milder. Once again the renting of land to Catholics was authorised.
The revolutionaries organised in their Convention and in the Party of United Irishmen contemplated dissolving the parliament by force, declaring independence and proclaiming the Republic.
With the aim of supporting the Irish revolutionaries, on December 15, 1796 a French fleet of 45 ships transporting 13,400 men left Brest. However a terrible storm prevented them from landing, causing the failure of the operation. On June 21, 1798 the United Irishmen, without French help, set the insurrection in motion with Dublin as its epicentre. Thousands of men rose up in arms. However, the authorities, alerted by their informers, and who had imposed martial law, decapitated a large part of the organisation shortly afterwards, arresting the main leaders. Lacking coordination and centralisation, the insurrection failed and was soon violently crushed.
With order re-established, the British government took back everything it had been forced to concede and English law, that is to say the law of retaliation, was applied again in full force with the imposition of a state of siege. The parliament was dissolved and union with Great Britain imposed.
In conclusion, we refer to a passage in a letter from Marx to Engels (December 10, 1869):
This period [1779-1800] is of the highest interest, scientifically and dramatically. Firstly, the foul doings of the English in 1588-89 repeated (and perhaps even intensified) in 1788-89. Secondly, it can easily be proved there was a class movement in the Irish movement itself. Thirdly, the infamous policy of Pitt. Fourthly, which will annoy the English gentlemen very much, the proof that Ireland came to grief because, in fact, from a revolutionary standpoint, the Irish were too far advanced for the English Church and King mob, while on the other hand English reaction in England had its roots (as in Cromwell’s time) in the subjugation of Ireland. This period must be described in at least one chapter: a pillory for John Bull!
1801-1846: The age of the small peasant
With the Union imposed, freedom of commerce suppressed, and the eradication of the industry that had developed between 1778 to 1801, Ireland was once again transformed into a purely agrarian nation, consisting mainly of small peasants who had to lease their land from a handful of English landlords, the 8,000 to 9,000 big landowners who possessed all of the farmland.
Marx stated in his speech to the German immigrants:
“During the American War of Independence the reins were loosened a little. Further concessions had to be granted during the French Revolution. Ireland rose so quickly that her people threatened to outstrip the English. The English government drove them to rebellion and achieved the Union by bribery. The Union delivered the death blow to reviving Irish industry. On one occasion Meagher said: all Irish branches of industry have been destroyed, all we have been left is the making of coffins. It became a vital necessity to have land; the big landowners leased their lands to speculators; land passed through four or five lease stages before it reached the peasant, and this made prices disproportionately high. The agrarian population lived on potatoes and water; wheat and meat were sent to England; the rent was eaten up in London, Paris and Florence. In 1836, £7,000,000 was sent abroad to absent landowners. Fertilisers were exported with the produce and rent, and the soil was exhausted. Famine often set in here and there, and owing to the potato blight there was a general famine in 1846. A million people starved to death. The potato blight resulted from the exhaustion of the soil, it was a product of English rule”.
Ireland had been subjugated and transformed into a purely agricultural country for the benefit of both British industry and the landlords, who could exploit the tenants without mercy. In an article entitled England in 1845 and 1885, published in The Commonweal (no.2, March 1st,1885), Engel’s wrote:
“The Reform Bill of 1831 had been the victory of the whole capitalist class over the landed aristocracy. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the victory of the manufacturing capitalists not only over the landed aristocracy, but over those sections of capitalists too whose interests were more or less bound up with the landed interest; bankers, stock-jobbers, fundholders, etc. Free Trade meant the re-adjustment of the whole home and foreign commercial and financial policy of England in accordance with the interests of the manufacturing capitalists – the class which now represented the nation. And they set about this task with a will. Every obstacle to industrial production was mercilessly removed. The tariff and the whole system of taxation were revolutionised, Everything was made subordinate to one end, but that end of the utmost importance to the manufacturing capitalist: the cheapening of all raw produce, and especially of the means of living of the working class, reduction of the cost of raw material, and the keeping down – if not as yet the bringing down – of wages. England was to become the ‘workshop of the world’; all other countries were to become for England what Ireland already was – markets for her manufactured goods, supplying her in return with raw materials and food. England is the great manufacturing centre of an agricultural world, with an ever increasing number of corn and cotton-growing Irelands, revolving around her, the industrial sun. What a glorious prospect!”
Such is the unvarnished beauty of capitalist development!
Despite everything, the Irish peasants did not allow themselves to be fleeced without putting up resistance,the peasant associations that had been set up organised, when possible, expeditions to kill the landlords and their accomplices. The Irish peasantry, although the most miserable and exploited in Europe, clubbed together to pay teachers to give their children an education.
“These truly national schools did not suit English purposes. To suppress them, the sham national schools [introduced in 1831] were established” (Engels to Jenny Longuet, 24 February 1881).
1846-1870: Extermination by Mass Starvation
The intense exploitation of Ireland by the landlords led to the exhaustion of the soil and favoured the spread of a potato disease, potato blight (Phytophthora infestans). This killer fungus, then still undiagnosed, almost entirely wiped out the local potato crop, then the staple food of the Irish peasantry. It resulted in a terrible famine between 1845 and 1852, the most acute phase of which lasted four years: in 1841 Ireland had 8,175,124 inhabitants; in 1851 a million had emigrated and a million and a half starved to death.
But food there was. In the House of Commons it was reported that during the first three months of the famine, up to February 1846, 3,280 tons of wheat, 35,600 tons of barley and 12,700 tons of oats and oat flour were exported to England. And exports continued at the same pace, enriching the landlords, after this date.
Added to which in 1846 there was the repeal of the Corn Laws, which had assured Ireland her monopoly position on the English market. Once this monopoly was abolished, America could export its grain to England, but the Irish small peasant could not compete with mechanised large-scale American agriculture. The landlords, who saw their rents tumble with the abolition of the Corn Laws, set about expelling the peasants with armed force in order to replace them with sheep, cattle and pigs, for the production of meat. The peasants had the choice of dying of starvation or emigrating to America, if they had the means, or rising up against the British oppressor and exterminating the landlords.
We’ll hand over to Marx who in Capital describes the agricultural transformation that followed (5).
“Ireland, in less than twenty years, lost more than 5/16ths of its people. Its total emigration from May, 1851, to July, 1865, numbered 1,591,487: the emigration during the years 1861‑1865 was more than half-a-million. The number of inhabited houses fell, from 1851‑1861, by 52,990. From 1851‑1861, the number of holdings of 15 to 30 acres increased 61,000, that of holdings over 30 acres, 109,000, whilst the total number of all farms fell 120,000, a fall, therefore, solely due to the suppression of farms under 15 acres – i.e., to their centralisation.
“The decrease of the population was naturally accompanied by a decrease in the mass of products. For our purpose, it suffices to consider the 5 years from 1861-1865 during which over half-a-million emigrated, and the absolute number of people sank by more than a third of a million (…)
“England, a country with fully developed capitalist production, and pre-eminently industrial, would have bled to death with such a drain of population as Ireland has suffered. But Ireland is at present only an agricultural district of England, marked off by a wide channel from the country to which it yields corn, wool, cattle, industrial and military recruits.
“The depopulation of Ireland has thrown much of the land out of cultivation, has greatly diminished the produce of the soil (if the product also diminishes relatively per acre, it must not be forgotten that for a century and a half England has indirectly exported the soil of Ireland, without as much as allowing its cultivators the means for making up the constituents of the soil that had been exhausted) and, in spite of the greater area devoted to cattle breeding, has brought about, in some of its branches, an absolute diminution, in others, an advance scarcely worthy of mention, and constantly interrupted by retrogressions. Nevertheless, with the fall in numbers of the population, rents and farmers’ profits rose (…)
“The total capital of Ireland outside agriculture, employed in industry and trade, accumulated during the last two decades slowly, and with great and constantly recurring fluctuations; so much the more rapidly did the concentration of its individual constituents develop. And, however small its absolute increase, in proportion to the dwindling population it had increased largely.
“Here, then, under our own eyes and on a large scale, a process is revealed, than which nothing more excellent could be wished for by orthodox economy for the support of its dogma: that misery springs from absolute surplus population (…)
“The Irish famine of 1846 killed more than 1,000,000 people, but it killed poor devils only. To the wealth of the country it did not the slightest damage. The exodus of the next 20 years, an exodus still constantly increasing, did not, as, e.g., the Thirty Years’ War, decimate, along with the human beings, their means of production. Irish genius discovered an altogether new way of spiriting a poor people thousands of miles away from the scene of its misery. The exiles transplanted to the United States, send home sums of money every year as travelling expenses for those left behind. Every troop that emigrates one year, draws another after it the next. Thus, instead of costing Ireland anything, emigration forms one of the most lucrative branches of its export trade. Finally, it is a systematic process, which does not simply make a passing gap in the population, but sucks out of it every year more people than are replaced by the births, so that the absolute level of the population falls year by year.
“What were the consequences for the Irish labourers left behind and freed from the surplus population? That the relative surplus population is today as great as before 1846; that wages are just as low, that the oppression of the labourers has increased, that misery is forcing the country towards a new crisis. The facts are simple. The revolution in agriculture has kept pace with emigration. The production of relative surplus population has more than kept pace with the absolute depopulation (…)
“The change of arable to pasture land must work yet more acutely in Ireland than in England. In England the cultivation of green crops increases with the breeding of cattle; in Ireland, it decreases. Whilst a large number of acres, that were formerly tilled, lie idle or are turned permanently into grass-land, a great part of the waste land and peat bogs that were unused formerly, become of service for the extension of cattle-breeding. The smaller and medium farmers – I reckon among these all who do not cultivate more than 100 acres – still make up about 8/10ths of the whole number. They are one after the other, and with a degree of force unknown before, crushed by the competition of an agriculture managed by capital, and therefore they continually furnish new recruits to the class of wage labourers. The one great industry of Ireland, linen-manufacture, requires relatively few adult men and only employs altogether, in spite of its expansion since the price of cotton rose in 1861-1866, a comparatively insignificant part of the population. Like all other great modern with an absolute increase in the mass of human beings absorbed by it. The misery of the agricultural population forms the pedestal for gigantic shirt-factories, whose armies of labourers are, for the most part, scattered over the country. Here, we encounter again the system described above of domestic industry, which in underpayment and overwork, possesses its own systematic means for creating supernumerary labourers. Finally, although the depopulation has not such destructive consequences as would result in a country with fully developed capitalistic production, it does not go on without constant reaction upon the home-market. The gap which emigration causes here, limits not only the local demand for labour, but also the incomes of small shopkeepers, artisans, tradespeople generally (…)
“Formerly, the agricultural labourers were but the smallest of the small farmers, and formed for the most part a kind of rear-guard of the medium and large farms on which they found employment. Only since the catastrophe of 1846 have they begun to form a fraction of the class of purely wage labourers, a special class, connected with its wage-masters only by monetary relations (…)
“Lord Dufferin (6) (…) declares (…) that Ireland is still over-populated, and the stream of emigration still flows too lazily. To be perfectly happy, Ireland must get rid of at least one-third of a million of labouring men (…) The proof is easily given. Centralisation has from 1851 to 1861 destroyed principally farms [that are] (…) under 1 and not over 15 acres. These above all must disappear. This gives 307,058 “supernumerary” farmers, and reckoning the families the low average of 4 persons, 1,228,232 persons. On the extravagant supposition that, after the agricultural revolution is complete one-fourth of these are again absorbable, there remain for emigration 921,174 persons. [Farms] (…) of over 15 and not over 100 acres, are, as was known long since in England, too small for capitalistic cultivation of corn, and for sheep-breeding are almost vanishing quantities. On the same supposition as before, therefore, there are further 788,761 persons to emigrate; total, 1,709,532. And as l’appétit vient en mangeant, Rentroll’s eyes will soon discover that Ireland, with 3½ millions, is still always miserable, and miserable because she is overpopulated. Therefore her depopulation must go yet further, that thus she may fulfil her true destiny, that of an English sheep-walk and cattle-pasture.
“Like all good things in this bad world, this profitable method has its drawbacks. With the accumulation of rents in Ireland, the accumulation of the Irish in America keeps pace. The Irishman, banished by sheep and ox, re-appears on the other side of the ocean as a Fenian.”
We add here an excerpt from a letter from Marx to Engels (8 November1867):
“How the English carry on is evidenced by the Agricultural Statistics for the current year, which appeared a few days ago. Furthermore, the form of the eviction. The Irish Viceroy, Lord Abercorn, “cleared” his estate in the last few weeks by forcibly evicting thousands of people. Among them were prosperous tenants, whose improvements and investments were thus confiscated! In no other European country did foreign rule adopt this form of direct expropriation of the stock population. The Russians confiscate solely on political grounds; the Prussians in Western Prussia buy out.”
The agrarian revolution entailed a diminution in the number of small peasants, although the latter remained the majority, and an increase in the number of the largest farms, in particular those over 30 acres and hence the rise of a rural bourgeoisie capable of employing one or two agricultural labourers, as occurred later in Russia with the Kulaks, and at the same time the appearance of an agricultural proletariat.
This terrible situation did not arise without creating a revolutionary ferment within the peasantry, above all those farming small and medium-sized holding, and among the agricultural proletariat. The Fenian movement, which led the struggle against the English coloniser, originated among the Irish emigres to the United States but was profoundly rooted in the great mass of the Irish population, i.e. the peasantry. This movement had to be atheist as the church originally wanted to ban it, although it revised its opinion once it realised it risked losing its influence over the great mass of peasants. In contrast to earlier peasant movements, which took the Irish aristocracy to be its natural guide, Fenianism ignored the authority of the church and the Irish ruling class; it was above all a popular movement.
We reproduce below a lengthy text by Engels which gives a historical summary of the struggles led by the peasantry against its oppressor (7).
“In Ireland there are two trends in the movement. The first, the earlier, is the agrarian trend, which stems from the organised brigandage practised with support of the peasants by the clan chiefs, dispossessed by the English, and also by the big Catholic landowners (in the 17th century these brigands were called Tories, and the Tories of today have inherited their name directly from them). This trend gradually developed into natural resistance of the peasants to the intruding English landlords, organised according to localities and provinces. The names Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, Captain Rock, Captain Moonlight, etc., have changed, but the form of resistance – the shooting not only of hated landlords and agents (rent collectors of the landlords) but also of peasants who take over a farm from which another has been forcibly evicted, boycotting, threatening letters, night raids and intimidation, etc. – all this is as old as the present English landownership in Ireland, that is, dates back to the end of the 17th century at the latest. This form of resistance cannot be suppressed, force is useless against it, and it will disappear only with the causes responsible for it. But, as regards its nature, it is local, isolated, and can never become a general form of political struggle.
“Soon after the establishment of the Union (1800), began the liberal-national opposition of the urban bourgeoisie which, as in every peasant country with dwindling townlets (for example, Denmark), finds its natural leaders in lawyers. These also need the peasants; they therefore had to find a slogan to attract the peasants. Thus O’Connell discovered such a slogan first in the Catholic emancipation, and then in the Repeal of the Union. Because of the infamy of the landowners, this trend has recently had to adopt a new course. While in the social field the Land League pursues more revolutionary aims (which are achievable in Ireland) – the total removal of the intruder landlords – it acts rather tamely in political respects and demands only Home Rule, that is, an Irish local Parliament side by side with the British Parliament and subordinated to it. This too can be achieved by constitutional means. The frightened landlords are already clamouring for the quickest possible redemption of the peasant land (suggested by the Tories themselves) in order to save what can still be saved. On the other hand, Gladstone declares that greater self-government for Ireland is quite admissible.
“After the American Civil War, Fenianism took its place beside these two trends. The hundreds of thousands of Irish soldiers and officers, who fought in the war, did so with the ulterior motive of building up an army for the liberation of Ireland. The controversies between America and England after the war became the main lever of the Fenians. Had it come to a war, Ireland would in a few months have been part of the United States or at least a republic under its protection. The sum which England so willingly undertook to pay, and did indeed pay in accordance with Geneva arbitrators’ decision on the Alabama (8) affair, was the price she paid to buy off American intervention in Ireland” (9).
Up to 1867 Marx and Engels thought the socialist revolution in England would resolve the Irish question, putting an end to its enslavement by England. Then Marx would recognize that the immense riches that England extracted from Ireland, and from its colonies in general, allowed it to corrupt a part of the English proletariat, the famous aristocracy of labour. The latter, of a chauvinist mentality, espoused the imperialist positions of its own bourgeoisie and spread a petty bourgeois ideology among the ranks of the proletariat. Moreover, the immense rent that the English landed aristocracy – the landlords – extracted from England lent a considerable material, political and moral force to English society. In England they had this hierarchy: a few working class members of parliament acted as servants to the liberals, who represented the interests of industrialists, and the latter acted as servants to the landlords. A large part of the proletariat in England was Irish, and the bourgeoisie fanned the flames of hatred between its British and Irish sections in order to prevent them from unifying.
Thus for Marx and Engels it also became evident that the independence of Ireland, or at least a large measure of autonomy, and therefore exit from the Union, was a precondition for social revolution in England. In an independent Ireland, or at least an Ireland that had acquired a large measure of independence by leaving the Union, a social revolution to expropriate the landlords would immediately follow, this being a matter of life or death for the great majority of Irish peasants. An expropriation of the landlords in Ireland would have delivered a fatal blow to landordism and would have considerably weakened the political and moral influence of this pillar of counter-revolution in England. This would have likewise delivered a revolutionary blast across the whole of England and galvanised the class struggle. Irish independence would, at the same time, have liberated the English proletariat from its subjection to the English bourgeoisie.
This is why within the International Marx and Engels would support every movement for Ireland’s exit from the Union and would call upon the English proletariat to support this. Indeed even after the dissolution of the International they would continue to reiterate the necessity of Ireland’s independence.
On this subject we are spoilt for texts to choose from, but we will cite a letter from Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York, dated April 9, 1870, which sets things out very well:
“After studying the Irish question for many years I have come to the conclusion that the decisive blow against the English ruling classes (and it will be decisive for the workers’ movement all over the world) cannot be delivered in England but only in Ireland.
“On January 1, 1870, the General Council issued a confidential circular drawn up by me in French (for only the French journals, not the German ones produce important repercussions in England) on the relation of the Irish national struggle to the emancipation of the working class, and therefore on the attitude which the International Association should take towards the Irish question.
“I shall give you here only quite briefly the salient points.
“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 over Ireland. Ireland is therefore the cardinal means by which the English aristocracy maintain their domination in England itself.
“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.
“And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the “niggers” in the former slave States of the U.S.A. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
“This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.
“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 any 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.
“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.
“These are roughly the main points of the circular letter, which thus at the same time give the raisons d’étre of the resolutions passed by the Central Council on the Irish amnesty. A little later I sent a strongly-worded anonymous article on the treatment of the Fenians by the English, etc., attacking Gladstone, etc., to the Internationale (organ of our Belgian Central Committee in Brussels). In this article I have also denounced the French Republicans (the Marseillaise had printed some nonsense on Ireland written here by the wretched Talandier) because in their national egoism they are saving all their wrath for the Empire.
“That worked. My daughter Jenny wrote a series of articles to the Marseillaise, signing them J. Williams (she had called herself Jenny Williams in her private letter to the editorial board) and published, among other things, O’Donovan Rossa’s letter. Hence immense noise. After many years of cynical refusal Gladstone was thus finally compelled to agree to a parliamentary enquiry into the treatment of the Fenian prisoners. Jenny is now the regular correspondent on Irish affairs for the Marseillaise. (This is naturally to be a secret between us.) The British Government and press are fiercely annoyed by the fact that the Irish question has thus now come to the forefront in France and that these rogues are now being watched and exposed via Paris on the whole Continent.
“We hit another bird with the same stone, we have forced the Irish leaders, journalists, etc., in Dublin to get into contact with us, which the General Council had been unable to achieve previously!
“You have wide field in America for work along the same lines. A coalition of the German workers with the Irish workers (and of course also with the English and American workers who are prepared to accede to it) is the greatest achievement you could bring about now. This must be done in the name of the International. The social significance of the Irish question must be made clear.
“Next time a few remarks dealing particularly with the position of the English workers.
“Greetings and fraternity!”.
The letter could not be clearer: it is the first requirement of the International to support Irish independence by all means available. An independent Ireland would translate into a considerable weakening of the English aristocracy: Marx spoke of “a decisive blow”. The agrarian revolution in Ireland would force the English proletariat to confront its own bourgeoisie to obtain wage increases. Due to the revolutionary wave that would hit the larger island, the independence of Ireland would radicalise the class struggle and increase the influence of socialism.
Marx also anticipated the programme that an independent Ireland would be compelled to apply. In a letter to Engels dated 30 November 1867, he wrote:
“The question now is, what shall we advise the English workers? In my opinion they must make the Repeal of the Union (in short, the affair of 1783, only democratised and adapted to the conditions of the time) an article of their pronunziamento. This is the only legal and therefore only possible form of Irish emancipation which can be admitted in the programme of an English party. Experience must show later whether a mere personal union can continue to subsist exist between the two countries. I half believe it can if it takes place in time.
“What the Irish need is: 1) Self-government and independence from England. 2) An Agrarian revolution. With the best intentions in the world the English cannot accomplish this for them, but they can give them the legal means of accomplishing it for themselves. 3) Protective tariffs against England. Between 1783 and 1801 every branch of Irish industry in Ireland flourished. The Union, which overthrew the protective tariffs established by the Irish parliament, destroyed all industrial life in Ireland. The bit of linen industry is no compensation whatsoever. The Union of 1801 had just the same effect on Irish industry as the measures for the suppression of the Irish wool industry, etc., taken by the English parliament under Anne, George II, and others. Once the Irish are independent, necessity will turn them into protectionists, like Canada, Australia, etc.
Before I put forward my views at the Central Council (next Tuesday, this time fortunately without reporters), I would like you to give me your opinion in a few lines”.
At the General Council Meeting of May 14, 1872 an important discussion on the Irish question was held. From the detailed minutes we can see that this commenced with a report by McDonnell, who spoke about the progress the movement was making in Ireland and read a letter from a correspondent in Dublin. Later in the discussion:
“Citizen Hales proposed “That the formation of Irish nationalist branches in England is opposed to the General Rules and principles of the Association (…) The fundamental principle of the Association was to destroy all semblance of the nationalist doctrine, and remove all barriers that separated man from man”. [further on adding that] “The International had nothing to do with liberating Ireland, nor with the setting up of any particular form of government, either in England or Ireland” (…)
“Citizen Mottershead could not escape the logic of the motion, but he deprecated the spirit in which it was made. The speech of Citizen Hales showed the animus with which it was actuated, and, seeing that, he could not vote for the motion. He would rather vote for a motion recommending our English members to cultivate a spirit of fraternity with the Irish members. He unfortunately knew too well the domineering spirit with which Englishmen of the ignorant class treated their Irish brethren. They had been treated as aliens in a foreign land and were looked down upon by the English workers (…)
“Citizen Engels said the real purpose of the motion, stripped of al hypocrisy, was to bring the Irish sections into subjection to the British Federal Council, a thing to which the Irish sections would never consent, and which the [General] Council had neither the right nor the power to impose upon them (…) The Irish sections in England were no more under the jurisdiction of the British Federal Council than the French, German or Italian and Polish sections in this country. The Irish formed a distinct nationality of their own, and the fact that [they] used the English language could not deprive them of their rights.
“Citizen Hales had spoken of the relations of England and Ireland being of the most idyllic nature – breathing nothing but harmony.
“But the case was quite different. There was the fact of seven centuries of English Conquest and oppression of Ireland, and so long as that oppression existed, it would be an insult to Irish working men to ask them to submit to a British Federal Council. The position of Ireland with regard to England was not that of an equal, it was that of Poland with regard to Russia. What would be said if the Council called upon Polish sections to acknowledge the supremacy of a Council sitting in Petersburg, or the North Schleswig and Alsatian sections to submit to a Federal Council in Berlin? Yet that was asked by the motion. It was asking the conquered people to forget their nationality and submit to their conquerors. It was not Internationalism,but simply prating submission. If the promoters of the motion were so brimful of the truly international spirit, let them prove it by removing the seat of the British Federal Council to Dublin and submit to a Council of Irishmen. In a case like that of the Irish, true Internationalism must necessarily be based upon a distinct national organisation, and they were under the necessity to state in the preamble to their rules that their first and most pressing duty as Irishmen was to establish their own national independence”.
In order to overcome nationalism there are times and places when it is not enough, indeed it is actually counter-productive and counter-revolutionary, to simply negate it.
As regards the internal organisation of the International we have to bear in mind that we then in an “Association”, which for historical reasons was formed and functioned, as we know, on a federal basis, and as such was a necessarily immature expression of the class party. The question of the national sections was no longer raised – or should no longer have been raised – in the Third International, and nor will it be, with all the more reason, in the world communist party of the future, whose members will not be German, Irish or English, but indifferentiated communists, who have repudiated their own particular upbringing within the nodes of this society.
The party constantly bears in mind the complexity and weight of bourgeois and pre-bourgeois historical survivals; their succession and necessity and the dynamic of the social clashes they inevitably provoke, but it isn’t directly involved in them, or directly part of them, and, as regards its own programme and internal organization, it keeps itself entirely separate from them at all times, even when it considers them historically progressive and has a duty to support them through its propaganda and actions. And such were clearly the deeply held convictions of Marx and Engels which shaped their position on the Irish question.
(to be continued)
(1) We have quoted from both the History of Ireland that appears in the Collected Works of Marx and Engels, (MECW) Volume 21, which is ‘printed according to Engels’ manuscript in German’, and from an earlier version that appears in Progress Publishers’ Marx and Engels, Ireland and the Irish Question. Our selection has been guided by whichever seems to us the more coherent version.
(2) The Romans referred to England as Britannia and Ireland as Hibernia. They knew the latter only by hearsay.
(3) Karl Marx, Outline of a Report on the Irish Question to the Communist Educational Association of German Workers in London, December 16, 1867, MECW Vol 21, p 196.
(4) Elizabeth I.
(5) The extract that follows is taken from Capital, Volume 1, Part V11, ‘The Accumulation of Capital’ Chapter 25, section f. Lawrence & Wishart, p.652-666. N.B. some of the statistical information which Marx provides is taken from tables that appear in the original text.
(6) “The lion’s share, which an inconceivably small number of land magnates in England, Scotland and Ireland swallow up of the yearly national rental, is so monstrous that the wisdom of the English State does not think fit to afford the same statistical materials about the distribution of rents as about the distribution of profits. Lord Dufferin is one of those land magnates” Capital, Volume 1, Lawrence & Wishart, p.664.
(7) Engels to Eduard Bernstein, June 26, 1882 – passages in italic by Engels. Marx & Engels on the Irish Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971, pp. 333-337.
(8) The Alabama affair: during the American Civil War (1861-1865) England, opposed to the industrial development of the Northern States, had given military and financial assistance to the Southern States, including the supply of warships which inflicted considerable damage on the Northern side. The Alabama was one of these warships. After the war the American Government demanded compensation. The tribunal in Geneva ruled that England should pay $15,500,000 damages.
(9) The same content appears in Der Sozialdemokrat n° 29, le 13 July 1882.
The Irish, who started to arrive in big numbers in the years after 1846 to escape the Great Famine, first tended to group together in ethnic and Catholic associations rather than in class-based organizations. In future they would swell the ranks of the unions with honor, but until the Civil War they were more interested in simply finding a job than in struggling to improve their conditions. However, the Irish always remained tied to those organizations that had been created by their compatriots who had arrived in America in the preceding decades.
Just as the Protestant Americans, including workers, formed the basis for the development of the Republican Party, so the Irishman was already on the side of the Democratic Party. The division was also an issue for public schools, where the teachers warned against the Papist conspiracy and described the Irish as uncouth. In 1844 there was a violent confrontation between Protestants and Irish immigrants in Philadelphia, with 16 deaths; the city, which had seen the workers themselves fighting side by side just seven years earlier in the General Trades Union (GTU), now burned with sectarian hatred. This was a situation that set the movement back a generation, and which made fraternization between proletarians impossible. The new organizations were also easily redirected towards hatred of immigrants, who were accused of driving down wages. Orators were heard who even defined the trade unions as superfluous and the cause of divisions, incapable of reforming society compared to the potential of nativist politics.
It seems paradoxical that this period of working class history has been defined in the USA as the era of “humanitarianism”. The explanation arises from the fact that, in a moment in which the workers were divided by ethnic differences, in which factory production was being revolutionized by the introduction of machines, in which most work was being carried out by women and children, the recovery of a genuine class movement was difficult and thus there was plenty of scope for solutions proposed by bourgeois reformists. We have seen how nativism took hold of the local proletarians.
The National Reform Association took advantage of the return of trade unionism between the end of the 40s and the start of the 50s. This rebirth can be ascribed to two different groups of proletarians. One consisted of German emigrants, many refugees following the revolutions of 1848, who united with their compatriots of earlier generations; they were not, however, similar to them in mentality, being far more radical and internationalist, and they created societies of free thinkers and a lively and nonconformist press. Initially, they expended much energy on sustaining the revolutionaries who returned to their country to struggle against monarchy.
The Germans were the most advanced layer within the class, and remained as such for a while. The typical German emigrant was a highly specialized artisan, who hoped to live better in the new world, exploiting his trade. Thus it was not long before shoemakers, tailors, typographers and other categories of workers formed craft trade unions which then came together in similar confederations to the civic societies that existed in the 1830s.
In many cities he German workers accounted for the most active part of the working class movements. From the start, they were inspired by communist doctrine whether that of Marx and Engels or that of (from 1846) that of Weitling, who visited the country several times and who founded a workers’ newspaper and organizations there. But Weitling did not truly believe in trade union struggle, which he utilized only in order to unite workers behind his cooperativist projects and in general behind a utopian communism, which after a short while alienated the following it first attracted. In 1851 Joseph Weydemeyer, a revolutionary communist friend of Marx and Engels, arrived in America, entering into polemics with Weitling, and demonstrating that “revolutionary cooperativism” only served to divide the workers, besides being a mere utopia. The most important thing on the immediate agenda for the working class movement was the struggle to defend day-to-day needs; but the political struggle was equally important. Economic and political reform was needed; but to achieve these objectives the first requirement was the class’s organization and unity. Therefore, enough of organizations comprising only Germans.
In 1853 a mass meeting was called in New York. The address proclaimed: “Only if all the trades are united and agitate in unity behind a common plan will it be possible to overcome all of the many causes that bring workers down to the level of beasts of burdens. Forwards, for a broad association of workers, not just to struggle for higher salaries and political reform, but also for the creation of a platform capable of uniting all proletarians for the good of the working class. All workers must take part in the meeting. Rise up like a single man. All for one, one for all”.
The meeting, which took place on March 21, 1853, and in which around 800 German workers took part, founded the Amerikanischer Arbeiterbund [American Workers’ Federation]. The union, which set an example for joining forces, was open to all trade unions, of whatever origin, trade, particular characteristic, and also to individual workers, without limitation according to nationality, belief or specialization, because they recognized that the scope of the union was to defend workers’ conditions by all means against the attacks of the bosses, who were also ready to use all means necessary. In addition, the Federation proclaimed its organizational independence of all existing political parties.
The example was followed in the same year by English-speaking workers. But the initiative was short-lived, and the ALU did not last much longer. The problem was that the craft-based unions in general were not interested in the other workers, and only went into action when their own sectional interests were in danger. Weydemeyer, who obviously also participated in the New York-based Communist Club, managed to keep the ALU alive until 1860; but the times were not yet mature. Nevertheless, the initiative had the merit of approaching the workers from earlier waves of immigration to that of the recently arrived Germans, a resource which proved fundamental for the trade union and political growth of the workers’ movement in North America.
The other group of unionized workers was the artisans. For these, wages were not the primary issue: wages at the end of 1840s had risen for more specialized workers. But working conditions continued to deteriorate, to the point that many missed the passing of the master craftsmen of earlier times, who respected the conventions of the craft, and did not hire people lacking skill and affiliation. If on the one hand this attitude included an element of racism, given that the non-specialized were mainly Irish (“Negroes who vote”, they were called in the South), the result in reality was the definitive break with inter-classist mutual aid associations, and the formation of pure workers’ unions, even if for the time being women, Negroes and non-specialists were excluded.
The latter, being left out of trade unions, deprived of any class consciousness and in general too poor to have qualms, often constituted the gangs of scabs whom the bosses used to break strikes. On August 4, 1850 at New York, there was a confrontation between police and scabs, and two workers lay dead in the tumult, the first victims of working disputes in America.
The strong wave of immigration also had the effect of giving rebirth to the anti-Catholic sentiment of the native workers. A xenophobic movement was born from this tendency, The American Party, called the “Know Nothings”, which gradually asserted itself in these years, and which in 1854 scored major successes in local administrative elections. But, aside from predictable measures against the immigrants, the movement also had an agenda that was of interest for the workers, similar to that of the Working Men in the 1830s: abolition of debtors’ prisons, extension of public education, prohibition of the employment of children under 15 years of age who did not attend school for at least 11 weeks per year, etc. The movement later proved to be an intermediate stage that would lead the workers to support, a little later, the anti-slavery crusade of the Republican Party. This repositioning was due to the widespread fear among the workers that the planters in the South, with their millions of slaves and the intention to extend slavery to the new territories in the West, constituted an even greater menace to their own living conditions than that presented by the immigrants. This tendency, and the movement for “Free Soil”, hugely popular in the Midwest, formed the backbone of popular support for the Republican Party before (with Lincoln’s victory) and during the war.
The Homestead Act, which drew on the same grassroots movements as the National Reform Association, was one of the warhorses of the Republicans, even if they were far from constituting that brake on capitalism which George Henry Evans believed would take place.
The workers’ movement held out through the highs and lows for the rest of the 1850s. National and central associations arose, which were however hard hit by the depressions of 1854 and 1857. The first was the National Typographical Union (1852), followed in the same year by the national union of glassblowers and then, in 1851 and 1854, the cigar-makers. 1854 saw the turn of the hat makers, who collaborated closely with their European comrades, above all with the English, as was the case with the calico printers. In 1855 railway workers and train drivers organized themselves, in 1853-56 the shipyard workers who had formed strong union sections in California; in 1850 and 1858 spinners, in 1856 decorators, in 1858 blast furnace workers (Sons of Vulcan), in 1857 miners, in 1859 mechanics and blacksmiths, whose national union was recognized by Congress. In the same year ironworkers organized themselves, also forming production cooperatives in various localities. It is estimated that by 1860 there were 26 national trade unions in the USA.
On the other hand a good two million foreigners disembarked in search of work in this decade alone, an enormous figure compared with the existing population; leading them to occupy positions that were opened up despite the crises by increasing mechanization and division of labor, which demanded less and less professional development. In 1860, in the large cities of the North, a third of the typographers, half of those in the construction industry, and nearly three quarters of shoemakers, tailors and carpenters were born abroad. In the face of this avalanche of unskilled labor, more conscious of their own origins than the class to which they belonged, even the Irish started to rise to the level of semi-specialized activities.
South of the Mason-Dixon Line, which, by separating Pennsylvania from Maryland, was viewed as the border between North and South, the situation was very different, in that trade unionism remained at a minimal level until the end of the Civil War. The reason for this was that the working class was almost non-existent, because there was scarcely any industrial production, and the class was concentrated only in small firms, little more than artisanal, in commerce, in the ports, and in very rare cases within industries in some of the larger cities, such as the Tredagar iron works in Richmond. After all, there were no really big cities; the economic and cultural spirit of the South was in the countryside, vast flatlands alternating with extensive wild or wooded areas, where millions of slaves produced the wealth that allowed a few thousand families to live in the lap of luxury.
We have already described the rise of slavery in North America in the first part of this work, and we have also touched upon the differences between slave labor and waged labor from the Marxist economic point of view in a previous work (Capitalist development and the American Civil War, in Communist Left n. 21-22, 2005/6). However it is worth recalling a few aspects of this social situation and the production in the Southern States in order to understand the differences that manifested themselves also in the class struggle.
In the South, agrarian production was dominant. The products included all those of traditional agriculture, but in these times the primary and fundamental materials for sustenance were, for various reasons, mainly produced locally; above all around half way through the century it was the Midwest that became the principal supplier of meat and grain to the States of New England, whose population was growing rapidly. The wealth of the South, therefore, did not derive so much from conventional agrarian foodstuffs but from high value products which, by their nature, lent themselves to export: sugar cane, tobacco, rice and, above all cotton, “King Cotton” which, thanks to the invention of the cotton gin (which made human labor extremely productive) soon spread across virtually all of the Southern States from the end of the eighteenth century. It was precisely in these decades that the number of slaves tripled, and the phenomenon was certainly not stopped by the prohibition on the importation of slaves in 1808. The South’s prosperity in the 1850s exceeded that of anywhere else on Earth, and the profits were such as to warrant cultivating cotton on any available plot of land, however tiny, putting self-sufficiency in foodstuffs in danger.
Cotton was produced on plantations that employed huge numbers of slaves, who labored under the direction of supervisors; the latter, in general very well paid, were tasked with achieving their assigned production quotas, whatever the cost, and to this end did not save the slaves any kind of abuse. The lash was the instrument most used to convince the slaves to adapt to the wishes of the supervisor, and not infrequently slaves died from mistreatment. The owner did not complain, so long as the quotas were achieved. Certainly, the slave was an expensive item of fixed capital, but not one to be regretted if, having produced for many years, the cost had been amortized (as the owner would put it). They tended to save as much as possible on maintaining the slaves: in 1822 the annual cost of a slave, all included (food, clothing, safekeeping etc.) was less than 10% of the wages of a white worker paid at the minimum level necessary for survival. In 1856 a traveler observed that the diet of a working slave was worse, quantitatively and qualitatively, than that of a prison convict.
Many slaves accepted this oppression, resigned to a condition that the masters’ own religion, which the slaves themselves had embraced, held as being decided by the mysterious designs of God. But the majority of slaves struggled over two centuries by all means imaginable to win back their freedom, that very freedom which, in its hypocrisy, the dominant class boasted (and boasts) about at every turn. Of course, this was not a struggle that could take the form of a trade union struggle, but the resistance that these human beings conducted to shake off the (not metaphorical) chains was no less hard and determined than that of white proletarians, even if surely more desperate. We would commit a historical injustice if we did not refer, in addition to what we have reported elsewhere, to the individual and collective acts of these our unfortunate comrades, who often struggled more for mere survival than for better working conditions.
Responses to the system could be individual or collective. The slave who attacked the supervisor, killed or wounded him, and who made his escape, was not rare. Often, rather than fleeing into the woods with the certainty of being captured (usually they did not have any knowledge of the surrounding environment), he committed suicide. Many cases are reported of parents who committed suicide after killing their children in their sleep to spare them the hell of slavery.
Another form of struggle, closer to that of trade union struggle, consisted in collective refusal to work as a protest against whipping and other brutal punishments. Typically the slaves fled into the woods or swamps, letting the owners know that they would only return on condition that injustices done would be remedied, obviously without reprisals. But it is difficult to renounce freedom once it has been experienced: sometimes the slaves did not come back and, in the areas suitably distant from inhabited centers and difficult to discover, they created small communities. Or else they fled northwards; tens of thousands of slaves undertook the dangerous journey of thousands of kilometers towards the States in which slavery was no longer legal. It was an extremely arduous journey, in that it was only possible to move by night, in unknown territory, through forests and swamps, eating roots and berries and with dozens of rivers to cross by night. In this venture they were assisted in the last years before the war by the so-called “Underground Railroad”, a network of a large number of pathways which led from the border States of the South to Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, and from there to Canada, the only place in which the slaves felt genuinely safe from the expeditions of the bosses’ emissaries, who were sent to take them back.
The fugitive slaves who remained in communities in the South often organized expeditions against the plantations, liberated other slaves and supported revolts. At least 250 revolts of more than 10 slaves are recorded in the two centuries of the history of slavery in America, but it is a figure that is certainly below reality. Southern society was organized in a paramilitary fashion because of the need to control the Negroes with force of arms. The owners of slaves never felt safe, above all after the revolts in Santo Domingo, which had led to the establishment of an independent Negro republic, Haiti. A few strikes in the pre-war period were organized as slave insurrections. Among the most famous and effective was that of Vesey, a free slave who organized thousands of slaves for an insurrection that should have started in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822, and which was crushed at the start by the treason of a few. The conspirators distinguished themselves by their dedication and heroism, which surprised their own oppressors. The largest revolt, over which the planters lost sleep for decades, was that of Nat Turner, who led an uprising of the Negroes of the plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831; the revolt was only annihilated thanks to the combined intervention of the State militia and Federal troops, even though the rebels only had hand-weapons available.
The consequence of these events was on the one hand an upsurge in laws passed on slavery (for example, teaching them to read and write was prohibited), against supporting runaway slaves, and restrictions on the emancipation and rights of freed Negroes. But limitations on exploitation were also enacted, imposing a maximum of 15 hours on the working day in summer, and 14 in winter. Even though these seem inhuman working hours, the slave-owners continued to ignore them.
Things were not much better for the white population that did not own slaves. It is calculated that there were half a million slave-owners, even if only a thousand were truly wealthy; if you add in their families, the slave-owners amounted to about three million, while the white population was a good nine million. Therefore, two-thirds of the white population did not draw any benefit from slavery; on the contrary, they were in some respects oppressed. In fact, the slaves were so cheap that landowners did not consider hiring whites, who had greater needs, while there was little room for the other trades given the level of development of southern society. Even where there was a definite need for specialized labor (above all in the 1850s) slaves were ever more often used (“leased out”) and trained in the required skills. German immigrants who arrived in the South, in particular skilled artisans, soon left because of the competition from slaves or the low wages that were on offer.
Not that the use of slaves as workers was advantageous: in passing from the field to the factory the slaves did not succeed in acquiring sufficient specialist skills. They could be bought, but now the rigidity of fixed capital became, in many cases, unsustainable. Forced labor has never been as productive as “free” labor. Sooner, rather than later, the South would certainly have had to confront the choice of liberating some of the slaves and favoring immigration, or else renouncing industrial development.
How did the propertyless whites fare? The majority of the six million who did not own slaves lived in conditions of destitution, farming tiny plots of land at the margins of the large estates, land that was by now used up by industrial farming; they were regarded as the poor whites. Even those few who lived on waged labor were on the breadline, earning between 50 and 70% of the pay that could be earned for the same work in the North.
The weakness of trade unionism among these workers is therefore no surprise. Workers at the Tredagar iron works were again brought to trial and convicted for a strike in 1847. Unfortunately, then, most trade union activity by the workers in the South was directed at preventing the employment of slaves in specialist trades, in particular metalwork. But the same logic of excluding the slaves led the workers, gradually, to understand that the definitive solution would actually have been the abolition of the “peculiar institution” itself: the start of the 1850s saw the drawing together of an alliance between workers and slaves, an alliance which, by also winning the support of the few but strongly abolitionist colonies of German immigrants, began to preoccupy the lords of the slave-holding estates.
Towards the end of the 1850s therefore, the narrow southern oligarchy risked soon being confronted with a class war, a preoccupation that is evident from the local press of the time. The dilemma, as seen above, was serious. Keeping the slaves outside of the factory would have meant the rise of a free working class, by nature hostile to the planters. Allowing the slaves to work as industrial laborers would have weakened the slave system, because experience showed that the slaves employed in industry soon became agitators for emancipation, apart from which there was a growing understanding that, on balance, slave labor was not a cost-effective option. The choice that was taken was therefore to impede the South’s industrial growth by all means available; a myopic choice, which gave the planters a little breathing space, but which would be paid at a high price in the course of the war.
It was observed that “each free worker who goes south is another nail in the coffin of slavery”.
The attitude of the working class of the Northern States to the institution of slavery, which held four million human beings in shameful material and spiritual conditions, was not always straightforward and coherent. In principle, no-one in the workers’ movement disputed the fact that slavery was a disgraceful institution, which among other things contradicted the principles of the bourgeois revolution, and in particular the Declaration of Independence of 1776. A document produced by the trade unions of Massachusetts in 1830 hoped that “the infamous stain of slavery, which mars the good reputation of the country, will be erased; and that our comrades are not only declared free and equal, but are also able to enjoy that freedom and equality to which they are entitled by nature”. At this time the northern bourgeoisie was no longer “enlightened” and abolitionist, but for the most part undertook lucrative business with the southern planters, whether selling manufactured goods, dealing in cotton and other products, or directly supplying them with slaves, even if by now only as contraband. It was the so-called alliance between the “Lords of the Loom and the Lords of the Lash”.
Here and there spontaneous initiatives were taken, such as the Female Anti-Slavery Society of the workers in Lowell, MA, in 1832. In 1836, the Working Man’s Association of England, close to the Chartist movement, directed an appeal to American workers because it was engaged in a campaign against slavery. Examples which did not have the hoped-for consequences.
Traditionally the workers were tied to the Democratic Party, which was, among other things, in favor of accepting immigrants, contrary to the more conservative Whigs. Alignments on contrary positions could bring about a split in the party. Another cause of hesitation was fear, obviously fomented by the democratic press of the North, that a sudden emancipation would have caused an influx of millions of freed slaves onto the labor market, which would have driven down the price of wage labor. It was an argument that took hold on the least qualified layers of manual labor, in those years the Irish; also because their own Catholic church did not hesitate to fight against the abolitionists, as disciples of a tendency presented as an “English import”.
On the other hand in these first years the abolitionists were little concerned with the workers, while for their part the trade unions did not give much attention to the question, not to say tended to ignore it. Moreover, many workers believed that there was no great difference between the slavery of the lash and the slavery of need and misery. The disciples of the National Reform and Evans himself invited workers to forget about the slaves and struggle for Reform, which would have, once achieved, resolved all the problems. But a meeting of the New England Workingmen’s Association in 1846 disowned this, and reflected that “slavery must be eradicated in America before the working class will obtain the hoped for improvements”. Their position was the one that would be expressed by Marx several years later in “Capital”: “In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin”.
These were positions that were going to become more widespread within the economic and political organizations of the proletariat, but which struggled to penetrate the broad masses of workers, at least until midway through the 1850s.
As we have seen, there was a certain resistance on the part of the workers to abandoning the Democratic Party. But on the other hand the Democratic Party was increasingly becoming the party of the slave owners, and therefore increasingly a party of the South. In order to maintain their political power the slave owners had to extend slavery to the new territories, to avoid becoming the minority in Washington; this resulted in the aggressive politics in the West, above all at the expense of Mexico. Other political victories were the repeal of the Missouri Compromise with the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) and the Dred Scott Decision (1857). The former resulted in a rush of thousands of pro-slavery Missourians into the newly created territory of Kansas, determined to tilt the fine constitutional balance in favor of the pro-slavery South. In response, northern abolitionists sent free soilers, leading to prolonged violence (“Bleeding Kansas”).
In their paranoia, justified by the inevitable and necessary decline of their own laws of capital, the slave owners came to idealize slavery as the ultimate form of American society, to be introduced also in the North; something that could not fail to increase the number of proletarians who joined the ranks of the abolitionist movement. Moreover it began to occur to the workers that, given that the slaves in the South were starting to enter skilled trades (which, as we have seen, was not a great success, but at the time this was not evident), their wages would be recalculated based on the cost of the labor of a Negro slave.
The Republican Party was born in 1854 in Wisconsin, through the work of leading lights of the trade union movement. Among their distinctive positions were opposition to the extension of slavery and support for the free soilers; with respect to the Whigs, they presented themselves as much more progressive and close the working class, but also made a favorable impression on the growing frontier population. Moreover, maintaining the Whig position on protectionism and the central bank, the party soon attracted the interest of the northern industrial and financial bourgeoisie. The defense of protectionism, and therefore of high tariffs on imports, obviously meaning European manufactured goods, was definitely favorably regarded by the manufacturing bourgeoisie of New England; but it was also an old warhorse of the Whigs, which the Republicans took up in order to win the workers over to their side. They put forward the idea that duties were primarily designed to protect American workers against the competition of cheap foreign labor. If they were not used to increase the prices of foreign manufactured goods before they reached the American market (or so they argued), the American industrialists would have no choice but to drive down wages to European levels in order to beat off the competition. The Republican politicians therefore had the bare-faced cheek to present themselves as defenders of the rights of workers, while actually defending the interests of big industry.
At first the bourgeoisie was slow to align itself, and some sectors, especially mercantile, remained loyal to the Democratic Party and the South. Drawing in sections from the decomposing Whigs, the part of the Democratic Party that represented the pioneers and small farmers, together with a good section of the industrial proletariat, the Republican Party rapidly gained strength, and achieved a great result in the presidential elections of 1856, even if it was not victorious. Prominent among its supporters in the proletarian camp were immigrants, especially workers of German and Scandinavian origin, who largely resented the influence of Weydemeyer and his Communist Club. In the successive years these same elements grew stronger, and in 1860 the Republican Party, supported by a bourgeoisie that increasingly understood that slavery was an obstacle to the country’s capitalist development, presented itself in the elections as the party of free labor; its champion was Abraham Lincoln, the “son of workers”. Nevertheless, it was above all the split in the Democratic Party into two major sections, one pro-slavery and one representing the farmers of the West, which delivered victory in the presidential elections to the Republicans.
A couple of key concepts distinguishes the Marxist Law of Value from the classical economists’ Labour Theory of Value, i.e. socially necessary labour time and labour power.
Our demonstration of the Marxist Law of the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall is based on the Law of Value, on the origin of the value of commodities and how that value is determined.
The sale of x quantity of commodity Co1 on the market enables the acquisition with money of y quantity of commodity Co2. In other words, x of Co1 is equivalent in value to y of Co2. But what determines the relative value of these two commodities, Co1 and Co2 ? The only common denominator is the average amount of social labour required to reproduce each commodity. Thus, if commodity Co1 takes 100 hours of human work to produce in total, and commodity Co2 takes 5 hours to produce, the normal trading ratio of Co1 and Co2 will gravitate around a rate of 1:20 (one Co1 is worth 20 of Co2). The key point here is that value is determined in the course of the production process and not in the process of circulation. In other words, it is not exchange that determines value, as vulgar economists claim, but human labour. The price of a commodity may oscillate according to short-term fluctuations in supply and demand, but it oscillates around an equilibrium that reflects the commodity’s actual value.
Thus, in Marxist economics price derives from value, just as in physics weight derives from mass. More specifically, the value of commodities, of whatever sort, is determined by the socially necessary labour time crystallized in physical matter in the course of the production process. The concept of socially necessary labour time refers to the quantity required to produce a commodity «in a given state of society, under certain social average conditions or production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed» (Economic Manuscripts, Chapter 6).
Competition means that it is the quantity of socially necessary labour time that regulates the exchange value of commodities, not labour time in general: the example cited by Marx is the hand-loom worker after the introduction of the power-loom: «his product of 20 hours now had no more value than his former product of 10 hours».
What the capitalist pays the worker does not reflect the value that the worker creates in the course of production. Otherwise, no capitalist would ever make any profit. Rather, the capitalist pays the worker for his labour power: to put it crudely, whatever is necessary to ensure that the worker turns up for work the next day. «The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation. All the capitalist cares for is to reduce the labourer’s individual consumption as far as possible to what is strictly necessary...» (Capital, Vol. 1 Ch. 23).
The difference between the cost of buying the worker’s labour power, and the value the worker adds to the commodities he produces, is the source of surplus value.
The general formula of a cycle of capital accumulation is M → Co → M’, with M representing the monetary capital invested, and Co the commodities purchased in order to function as capital.
With a part of M the raw materials to be processed are acquired, to which is added the cost of energy plus a sum set aside to cover wear and tear and the maintenance of the machinery and the premises. This ensemble in Marxist terminology is referred to as Constant Capital (C). Constant because its value remains unchanged during the production process: it is entirely transferred to the value of the end product.
With the remaining part of M the capitalist acquires another commodity, a commodity with very unusual properties: the labour power of workers. During the production process it produces more value than it costs, and capital appropriates the difference. For example, if a working day is 8 hours long, the worker may produce in 4 hours a value equivalent to the wage he receives, and the 4 remaining hours is surplus labour, that is, a surplus value that ends up in the coffers of the capitalist. Marx called the monetary capital expended on the acquisition of labour power Variable Capital (V), variable because during the production process it generates an additional value, or surplus value (P), compared to its cost.
Therefore M expended as capital is transformed into a certain ensemble of commodities, indicated in the formula by Co, divided in its turn into C + V.
In the course of production, a surplus value P is added, and the general formula becomes:
M → Co → (C + V) → (production process) → (C + V + P) → Co’ → M’
Co’ represents all the commodities produced, its value being made up of Co to which is added the surplus value. M’ is the monetary capital taken back from the sale of the final product Co’ after it has been sold on the market. M’ is greater than M and equal to M + P.
In short we have three economic categories: Constant capital C, Variable capital V and Surplus value P. At the beginning we have only C + V but in the end, in the final product, we have C + V + P. The capitalist at the end of the cycle sells his product and, as a rule, re-invests P in order to expand the volume of production, so that from one cycle to the next (M → Co → M’) the value of the capital accrues and there is an unbroken and continuous increase in material production. This at least in the idyllic vision of capitalist production held by the classical economists. David Ricardo (1772-1823) is the last representative of classical economy and his theoretical work is its crowning moment. Classical economy corresponds to the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary phase. Subsequently, with Malthus, bourgeois economy will go on to establish what we Marxists call vulgar economy.
A part of the surplus value produced is reinvested as capital in order to reproduce it on an enlarged scale. The other part is consumed personally by the capitalist and goes towards enriching the various strata of social parasites and whose social weight is far from negligible, namely: those who live off the interest paid on financial capital, the banks, shareholders and financial institutions, and those who live off ground rent. Here, for simplicity’s sake, we will consider that all the surplus value has been reinvested, but if it is only reinvested in part, rather than in full, this doesn’t detract from the validity of the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
Let us consider a business enterprise which on each working day invests $ 9,000 dollars (or euros, or yuan) in constant capital C, and $ 1,000 in workers’ wages V. Let us suppose that this $ 1,000 in wages corresponds to the value produced in half a day’s work: in 4 hours out of an 8-hour day the labour of the workers produces $ 1,000 value, corresponding to the value of their wages, and in the remaining 4 hours it produces another $ 1,000 value, which this time is entirely surplus value, that is, the yield of the surplus labour with respect to the cost of the labour power which allows the capitalist to rake in a profit.
The value of the final product will therefore be C + V + P, or $ 9,000 + $ 1,000 + $ 1,000 = $ 11,000.
The rate of profit is calculated by dividing the surplus value by the total capital, in this case $ 1,000 / ($ 9,000 + $ 1,000) = 0.1 = 10%, and the rate of surplus value by dividing the surplus value by the variable capital, in this case, $ 1,000 / 1,000 = 1.
By organic composition of capital is meant the ratio of C to V, and it is an indicator of the productivity of labour, of the capacity of labour to set in motion ever bigger production facilities and to transform ever larger quantities of raw materials. In this case the organic composition is $ 9,000 / $ 1,000 = 9.
But our capitalist, exposed to harsh competition, is forced to modernize the productive process by acquiring more efficient machinery. These allow him to double productivity, such that in order to transform $ 9,000 of constant capital, only half of the number or workers are now sufficient. The final cost falls from $ 11,000 to $ 10,000, composed of $ 9,000 C plus $ 500 V plus $ 500 P. Both V and P are halved. The organic composition therefore goes from 9 ($ 9,000 / $ 1,000) to 18 ($ 9,000 / $ 500). The unit production price of the commodities is reduced in the proportion 10/11.
Or else the capitalist could employ the same number of workers and utilize more constant capital. The result is the same, as can be easy verified.
As long as our capitalist is the only one to have introduced this technical innovation, he will not sell his products at their cost price, which is lower, but only at a slight discount with respect to the market price, thus forcing his competitors to sell their products below their value. He therefore obtains a surplus profit while his competitors, on the contrary, derive less profit. We thus we have a transfer of value between capitalists. Our capitalist can even allow himself the luxury of employing new workers to increase production.
However, those of his competitors who haven’t been bankrupted will adopt the new production process. In this way the new productivity radiates throughout the branch of production concerned. The new organic composition of capital becomes the rule and the average amount of labour socially required to transform $ 9,000 of constant capital is halved. On the market, the value of the final product in this branch of industry will therefore no longer be $ 11,000 but $ 10,000. The capitalist will no longer be able to sell his wares above their value but will be compelled to sell them at the new value. The result is a new rate of profit which corresponds to the new organic composition of capital: $ 500 / ($ 9,000 + $ 500) = 5.3%.
The rate of profit has been almost halved! The productivity of labour has doubled at the same time as the rate of profit has fallen. The greater the productivity of labour, the less ‘productive’ capital becomes, and the less profit it produces. As the productivity of labour increases, so the amount of constant capital advanced to obtain the same mass of profit increases as well.
Capital cannot prevent the fall in the rate of profit, but only increase its mass, by enlarging the scale of production, by taking on more workers and by consuming more materials and machinery. In our Case 1, the constant capital that would need to be advanced to obtain the same mass of profit would have to be doubled. The process sees the continual ruin of competitors and an increasing concentration of capital. This leads to the formation of cartels and monopolies. But the fact remains that the more productive social labour becomes and the more social productivity increases, the less productive capital becomes, thus slowing down its relative accumulation. Therefore, growth is actually reduced relative to the production, turnover and capital of the previous year which was determined by the reinvestment of the surplus value, and therefore in proportion to the rate of profit. The accumulation of capital, whose growth tends toward zero, comes ups against this insurmountable obstacle.
The only way of countering the fall in the rate of profit, momentarily, is to increase the rate of surplus value.
We have seen that an increase in the productivity of labour reduces the value of the commodities produced. When the increase in the productivity of labour spreads to the sectors involved in producing goods for the maintenance and reproduction of labour power, the value of labour power itself is reduced, because less social labour time is required to produce what is required.
If in the 19th century half a day’s labour was enough to meet a worker’s needs, nowadays the time required has certainly gone down to an hour, or perhaps even less. The rate of surplus value, that is the P / V ratio, has gone up as a consequence. So from 1 in our Case 1 considered earlier, $ 1,000 / 1,000 or 4/4 hours, now, if 1 hour a day is enough to offset the requirements of labour power, the rate of surplus value has risen to 7 / 1 = 7. This increase in the rate of surplus value, which increases P, counteracts the fall in the rate of profit, despite the reduction in time worked, which has gone down from 12 hours a day in the 19th century to around 8 hours today.
And yet the effect of the increase in the absolute surplus value, with the lengthening the working day, or of the relative surplus value, with the increase in its intensity, which has physical limits, cannot arrest the tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the long term.
Let us look again at the figures in Case 2: $ 9,000 C + $ 500 V + $ 500 P. If we now suppose (Case 3) that the rate of surplus value rises from 1 to 10, with all else remaining the same, we have: $ 9,000 C + $ 90 V + $ 900 P. There has been a steep decline in the wage bill but profits have gone up. The organic composition also increases from 18 to 100. Temporarily the rate of profit has risen from 5.3% ($ 500 / $ 9,500) to 9.9% ($ 900 / $ 9,090).
But for as long as the historically inevitable growth of fixed capital and the corresponding rise in its depreciation and maintenance quotas, continue, so will decline the rate of profit. If C is increased to $ 10,000 (Case 4) the rate of profit immediately drops to 8.9%, ($ 900 / $ 10,090). Whatever the increase, even if enhanced by increased levels of exploitation of the working class, the progressive barrenness of capital cannot be reversed.
In the wonderful third part of Volume Three of Capital, Marx writes: «It has already been shown, moreover, and this forms the real secret of the tendential fall in the rate of profit, that the procedures for producing relative surplus value are based, by and large, either on transforming as much as possible of a given amount of labour into surplus value or on spending as little as possible labour in general in relation to the capital advanced; so that the same reasons that permit the level of exploitation of labour to increase make it impossible to exploit as much labour as before with the same total capital. These are the counter-acting tendencies which, while they act to bring about a rise in the rate of surplus value, simultaneously lead to a fall in the mass of surplus value produced by a given capital, hence a fall in the rate of profit» (Chapter 14, Penguin Edition).
What is more, the reduction in the social value of labour, caused by the increase in labour’s productivity, also contributes to the reduction in the rate of profit: the serpent bites its own tail.
Thus, whatever measures the capitalists take to ‘rationalize’ production, such as closing non-profitable businesses, reducing costs by out-sourcing, reducing staffing levels by increasing productivity, etc., even if they result in an initial increase in the rate of profit due to reduced production costs, in the end they are bound to lead, once all such measures have become generalized, to a further reduction in the rate of profit.
At the same time capital has an interest in reducing the price of labour power, cutting wages that is. Rising unemployment and the large-scale importation of cheap labour serve to exert a downward pressure on wages. Increasing job insecurity and impoverishment of the labour force are thus inseparable from capitalism. In Japan 30% of the labour force is already impoverished and working part-time. In Germany the figure is 20%, In France the rate was 15% in 2010 and is now approaching 20%. Capitalism equals insecurity and improvidence: in the end all long-term contracts will be eliminated, and a lack of job security will become the norm. Spain, Greece and Portugal are already showing the rest of Europe what it can expect.
Today we can add to all this a decrease in the employers’ responsibilities for pensions and health benefits and the incessant changes to employment legislation to make it more ‘flexible’ and compliant with the requirements of Capital, i.e., making it possible to lower wages and sack staff without incurring penalties or costs. Already in Great Britain so-called ‘zero-hour’ contracts are fast becoming the norm.
As capitalism gets older and more decrepit, its true nature and essential mechanisms, as laid bare by Marx, will become increasingly evident. Its centralized, ‘globalized’, militaristic, exploitative, and crisis-ridden characteristics will become more and more accentuated, until finally it is destroyed, by the communist revolution.
From Prometeo No. 8 (November 1947)
The exploitation of man by man in the domain of manufacturing industry arose in modern society with the emergence of capitalism, when the technical possibilities of associated labor began to be exploited. The worker is expropriated of the product of his labor and part of his labor power is taken from him to form the profit of his employer. A simple schema like this is not sufficient to represent the relation between worker and employer in the domain of agriculture, where the revolution so far occurred has not substantially modified productive techniques, but only the juridical relations between socially defined persons. At the basis of the agrarian economy is the occupation of land, at first established by the military power of strong tribes or groups or of military leaders who invaded the territories of other peoples or who settled in unpopulated regions. In reality, in order for the landlords to be able to avail themselves of human labor power, the seizure of land by means of brute force is a prerequisite for an economy based on the slave labor of conquered peoples. But in modern society, in which we are presently interested, slavery had already been abolished by the time the capitalist economy began to emerge. Feudal society was no longer a slave society.
The occupation of the land, which was not only preserved in the feudal regime but actually constituted the basis of that regime, is perfectly accepted and juridically sanctioned in the fully developed capitalist regime. In practical terms this means that the owner of a vast expanse of agricultural land, although he does not work on these lands, obtains from them the land rent, without thereby being obliged to modify the productive technique of the workers that he exploits by introducing the resource of an associative form of activity.
In this way, large landholdings can exist without necessarily constituting single large enterprises; the latter being an institutional form wherein each worker has specialized tasks. There are large agrarian businesses. They have the character of capitalist enterprises applied to agriculture; they involve an extensive incorporation of industrial capital in the land (such as machines, animals, various types of plants and equipments, etc.) and employ wage workers (agricultural laborers) who are pure proletarians. The owners of these big agricultural enterprises could be either the owners of the land itself, or large-scale rural leaseholders. Theoretically, a large industrial agrarian enterprise could also be superimposed on small-scale agrarian enterprise, if it is convenient for the capitalist to lease a large number of contiguous small private properties.
With regard to the ownership of very large tracts of land, this could prevail – and does prevail today – even in large capitalist countries, superimposed on small farm parcels, when the large landowner (the latifundist) has his land divided into small parcels, in each one of which a peasant family lives and works with primitive technology. In such a case, the worker is not totally expropriated of his product like the wage worker, but yields to the exploitation of the landlord a large part of his product, in kind (various types of crops) or in money (sharecropping or leaseholds). The sharecropper or the tenant farmer can therefore be considered a semi-proletarian. There are also, in the purely modern bourgeois regime, small landholdings connected to small agricultural businesses.
The small-scale peasant landowner is a manual worker and generally has a quite low standard of living. But he is not a proletarian, because the entire product of his labor belongs to him; nor is he exactly a semi-proletarian, since he does not have to surrender any part of his product to another person. However, in the interplay of economic forces, he feels the impact of the demands of the privileged classes by way of high taxes, indebtedness to finance capital, etc. His social position is paralleled by that of the artisan although his legal position is different, being theoretically in the same category as the large landowner. In reality, capitalism, in order to rid itself of medieval obstacles, did not need to infringe upon the juridical institutions that affected real property; to the contrary, it adopted, almost to the letter, the framework of Roman law according to which, in theory, the same article of the legal code applies to parcels of land of less than an acre as well as to vast plantations.
What capitalism needed to destroy were those aspects of the feudal system that were of Germanic provenance, a system that made the small peasant exploited on the large estate an intermediate figure between the slave and the free laborer.
The “glebe serf”, besides having to endure veritable extortionate demands in delivering his quotas to the landlord and the church, was bound to his place of work. Capitalism had to free him from this servitude just as it had to liberate the impoverished artisans from the shackles of the thousands of laws and rules governing the guilds, so that both, transformed into men free to sell their labor power anywhere, could constitute the reserve armies of production based on wage labor.
The shattering of these juridical bonds constituted the bourgeois revolution. It is of course true that the latter, which on the other hand, in theory, did not abolish the artisan class, left intact the principle of agricultural production based on landholdings, and did not consist, from the point of view of legislation, in a redistribution of private landed property.
There can be no doubt that, among the various forms of agricultural enterprises mentioned above, the one that is most compatible with capitalist industry is the large unified agricultural business, and the one that is least compatible with it is the small landholding; these can be juridically divided into two types: the “minifundio” and the “latifundio”.
It is not correct to define the latifundio as a survival of the feudal regime, since it survived intact after the violent and radical abolition of all feudal bonds. It may or may not have a tendency to fragmentation, just as small parcels may or may not have a tendency to be re-concentrated into large estates or modern large-scale agricultural enterprises. But such phenomena unfold, in the framework of the modern bourgeois regime, as a consequence of technical factors and economic trends.
What role does the cycle of transformation of agricultural production play in the clear condemnation of industrial capitalism set forth in the historical communist schema, according to which the exploitation of labor power will be abolished with the conquest of rule over society by the workers?
With regard to the modern large agricultural business, the latter will rapidly be subjected to the same fate as manufacturing industry due to the fact that it is based on the technique of associated labor.
The agricultural wage laborers of these large enterprises, although they are burdened by the social and political handicap of not being concentrated together in large modern urban conglomerations, will march alongside the industrial proletariat on the road to the formation of revolutionary class potential.
The semi-proletarians, that is, the sharecroppers and leaseholders, although they cannot have the same degree of class consciousness, can expect to reap great social advantages from the revolution of the industrial proletariat, since the latter, although it will support in every stage of development the predominance of associative forms of labor and the concentration of small enterprises into larger ones, will be the only class that can radically abolish for the first time in history the system of private ownership of the land, at the same time as it abolishes industrial exploitation.
This does not mean that the small sharecropper or leaseholder will become landowners, but that they will be freed from the obligation to pay the tribute extracted from their labor power, in the form of money or payments in kind, that the landowners previously received. In other words, the revolution of the industrial proletariat will be capable of immediately abolishing the principle of land rent; furthermore, thanks to one of many dialectical relations that intervene in the succession of social and historical forms, it will be capable of abolishing the principle of land rent much more rapidly and completely than that of the profit of industrial capital.
As for the small landowner, the question is theoretically quite different, insofar as the land rent of his parcel presently accrues to his benefit and is not distinguished legally from the fruit of his own labor power. There can be no doubt that a revolution in this domain will only take place during a later stage, since all the small landholdings previously administered by sharecroppers, lessees or the small landowners themselves, will be consolidated into large socialized agricultural operations much more rapidly than this could have been done within the framework of the bourgeois economy.
Thus, one can by no means present the agrarian reflection of the proletarian revolution as an episode of redistribution or repartition of the land, nor as the conquest of the land by the peasants. The slogan, “small property instead of big property” does not make any sense. The slogan, “small agrarian business instead of big agrarian business” is purely reactionary. With regard to this point, it is necessary to clarify which stages of this cycle can be completed prior to the downfall of bourgeois power. It is a classical opportunist error to tell the rural masses that an industrial capitalist regime, no matter how advanced it may be, can abolish land rent. Land rent and industrial profit are not distinctive aspects of two different and opposed historical eras. They coexist perfectly well not only in the classical understanding of bourgeois law, but also in the economic processes of the accumulation of finance capital.
Despite the substantial differences that we have demonstrated up to this point that distinguish the two fields of production, land rent and profit have a common origin in the principle of the extraction from the worker of a part of his labor power and in the commercial character of the distribution of the products of industry and agriculture. In this manner, the slogan of socialization of land rent without a revolution of the working class is pure idiocy worthy of that other idiocy reflected in the slogan of the socialization of monopoly capital within the framework of the private enterprise economy.
Another opportunist position is that it is necessary to await the concentration of the agrarian economy into large enterprises before we can speak of a revolution that would socialize both industry and agriculture. Such a conception is defeatist, since the commercial nature of the bourgeois economy and its evolution within the framework of ever more speculative and exchange-oriented forms allow us to foresee that private capital will not be moved on a large scale to land improvement business ventures, whose profits are small and will furthermore require a long term delay prior to realizing the payoff compared to the colossal industrial and banking capitalist business deals.
Now, the replacement of the small enterprise (whether it is unencumbered or enclosed by latifundia [the Roman term for large privately owned agrarian estates] by big business cannot take place without radical technological transformations. And these transformations will be all the more slowly introduced where, for natural reasons, they will prove to be too expensive (irregular topography, shortages of water, infertility of the soil, etc.). Only an economy of a social character will be capable of mobilizing the enormous masses of productive forces needed for such a transformation.
Finally, the slogan of the distribution of the latifundia to the peasants in the bourgeois regime also makes no sense, as it attempts to promise an expropriation without indemnification, which is contrary to the institutions of the bourgeois State, and is purely demagogic in times when neither the State nor the capitalist class have the availability of liquid capital and can mobilize the productive resources necessary for the elimination of some of the technical characteristics of the worst examples of the latifundia, such as the lack of housing, roads, canals, and drinkable water, as well as the presence of epidemic malaria, etc.
There can be no doubt that the agrarian program of the workers revolution will include, parallel to the suppression of all land rent, a temporary redistribution of the croplands at the level of management, insofar as this will enable a uniform application of the labor power of that part of the peasant class that cannot be socially established among the workers of the collective enterprises.
In any event, this new redistribution will affect not the ownership but the distribution of management of the surface of the land and will not be able to assume, in modern capitalist countries, the social or historical dimension it assumed in Russia in 1917, where the conquest of power by the industrial proletariat not only achieved the first suppression of the principle of land rent but also the suppression of the feudal agrarian regime, which had continued to be practically in full force in the Czarist empire after the abolition of glebe serfdom promulgated in 1861.
In the typical capitalist country, the revolutionary industrial working class will embrace without restrictions the agricultural worker of the large enterprises and in this way prevent the regression of the rural laborer to the condition of the small peasant. It could consider the semi-proletarian sharecroppers and leaseholders as allies; tolerating their aspiration to the free use of their land, something that only the revolution can achieve. Only with great caution and as a temporary measure could it expect any positive support from the small peasant landowners who have not yet been ruined and proletarianized by capitalism. It is even possible that, in periods of crisis of the industrial apparatus due to war and defeat, one could expect that the majority of the small rural landowners, exploiting the economic crisis thanks to the high prices of agricultural products and seeing their social position become more stable, and also in view of their incapacity as a class to weather long-term historical cycles, could support the policies of the conservative parties.
(Genova meeting, April 26, 1953)
The two articles that follow conclude a series of six articles presented to party general meetings between September 1952 and April 1953 under the heading Contributions to the Organic Representation of the Revolutionary Marxist Theory. Translations of the previous four articles: ‘Theory and Action’, ‘The Immediate Revolutionary programme’, ‘The Historical Invariance of Marxism’ and ‘The False Resource of Activism’ can be found in Communist Left no 27/28 and 31/32 and are also on our website.
from “Il Partito Comunista”, n. 68-69-71, 1980
GM122 – May 2015
GM123 – Sept 2015
GM124 – Jan 2016
GM125 – May 2016
GM126 – Sep 2016
The Course of the Crisis in Production and Finance
The History of India: Before the Europeans’ Arrival.
Proletarian Uprisings in Italy after the First World War
The Crisis of Global Finance
Recent Migration Flows to Europe, Part I
The Military Question: Libya 1911
Report on the Party’s Activities in Venezuela
Recap of the History of Ireland
The Party’s Union Activities
Our hyper-efficient comrades in Genoa put on another well organized General Meeting of the Party at our local office there.
At the meeting there was wide participation from our groups in Italy, France and Great Britain. Those unable to attend sent detailed reports on local efforts, and these were read out in full.
As party members know, our meetings are “working meetings” not “congresses”. This is because the historical maturity of our doctrine, and the tactical models which derive from it, effectively preclude that there is still "a line to identify" about which "decisions need to be made” within the communist movement. Nowadays there is nothing left for us “to decide”, apart from as concerns those measures of secondary importance required from time to time to ensure the normal functioning of internal activity, and of the organization, timing, etc, of external propaganda.
As usual we will only give a brief summary here of the many reports presented by the various party work and study groups and comrades engaged in union work, postponing publication of the texts in full to subsequent issues of our Italian language magazine "Comunismo", and where possible translated into other languages.
Proletarian Uprisings in Italy after the First World War
The Military Question: the Balkan Wars of 1912-13
The Financial Crisis in China
Recent Migration Flows to Europe, Part Two
The Successive Modes of Production: the Ancient-Classical Variant, Greece
History of India: the Conflict between the Colonial Powers in the 18th Century
Concepts of Dictatorship before Marx: Maximilien Robespierre
The Party’s Union Activities
History of the Labor Movement in Ireland: 1907-1912
Internationalist communists all, we convened in Turin over the period 26 and 27 September for the party’s working meeting.
Happily a hotel with an adjoining conference room had been booked for the sessions, which allowed us to maximize use of the available time; a fact also enhanced by the timely and active discipline of both speakers and listeners.
As usual we devoted Saturday morning to the coordination of the many tasks we have taken on and for which various comrades have taken responsibility, deciding which programs of study to continue and which new ones to start and also reporting on the results of our propaganda initiatives.
We strive to maintain the link between our past tradition of social science and revolutionary struggle with a difficult present, which, we are certain, only that very special and unique organization within today’s society that is the Communist Party is capable of deciphering, and consequently of predicting those necessary developments that will allow it to intervene as an active factor in the future.
Wherever and whenever we are placed on the terrain of class struggle, it is particularly important that our evaluations correspond with the directives we issue to workers and that this is continually verified: not so much in the opinion of the workers themselves as by careful study of the changing balance of power between the classes.
We provide here, for the information of those absent and as a reminder to those who attended, an initial summary of the reports which were presented. All of them, even when the result of the work of individual comrades, are to be understood as the impersonal and collective expression of our current militant team as a whole, as much as they are of a now long-established school; the expression of passion, science and communist method rolled into one.
Recent Migration flows to Europe: Part Three
The Successive Modes of Production: the Ancient-classical Variant, Greece
Report from the Venezuelan Section
The Money Crisis
History of India: Marx on the Colonial Regime
The Course of the World Economy
The War in Syria
The Military Question: The First World War
The Party’s Union Activities
Concepts of Dictatorship before Marx
History of the Labor Movement in the US
Comrades from Turin, Genoa, Lodi, Friuli, Cortona, Bari, Rome, Florence, Parma, Naples, and from outside Italy from Paris, England, Venezuela, Germany were all in attendance at the meeting in Parma. The hospitality and overall organization was impeccable. Brought forward to Friday afternoon, work commenced with the organizational meeting, which would be continued the following morning. As usual, we dedicated Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to the presentation of reports.
Of those reports we will give a short summary straightaway, postponing the publication of the full texts to later editions of "Comunismo".
The party aims to respond to the sometimes extremely serious questions of the day not by applying a particular prescribed form of internal reporting and consultation among its militants, but rather through the collective handling of its distinctive theory and critical knowledge of the historical precedents and past events of the class struggle. These impersonal instruments, of doctrine and program, suffice to guide it in its interpretation of new cases as they arise and settle on the correct revolutionary policy to adopt.
To maintain this vital and dynamic correspondence between its past and present entails a continuous labor of study and collective re-appropriation of the party’s distinctive program. Our regular general meetings, held three times a year, constitute the crucible in which contributions from all of our groups and from those on the fringes of the party are cast, in order to forge shared keys with which to unlock the present, and to attempt to cast light on the road ahead.
The party does not have militants of the exceptional energy and thinking skills of our past masters at its disposal today, but it knows it can manage without them if it remains faithful to their work by through its modest but disciplined concourse of contributions; so numerous in fact we are unable to fit them all in at the meetings, or find enough column space for them all in our press. Through this inconspicuous but convergent, tenacious and fraternal work we look to defend the great project of communism and the only clear line it is possible to give the working class, everywhere engaged in permanent war with the class enemy.
World Capitalism’s course toward Catastrophe
The Communist Party of Italy’s intervention in the Italian Civil War
Germany 1919-1923: between Social Democracy and Communism
The Military Question: the First World War, the Austro-Serb Campaign
Clashes between Imperialisms on the Syrian Battlefield
Trade Union Activity
Report on the work of our Venezuelan section
The Labor Movement in the USA: The Preparation for World War II
The Revolutionary Dictatorship before Marx: Babeuf
The Cortona meeting was attended by comrades from Britain, Turin, Genoa, Veneto, France, Germany, Cortona, Rome, Florence, Parma and Bari. The sessions were held in the usual atmosphere of ordered, firm commitment, and without all the time-wasting controversies, debates and personalisms, etc. that characterize the democratic-congressional method, which is the exact opposite of ours.
Embarked on over seventy years ago and with much still much to do, we are aware of the seriousness and difficulty of the work required of our small party, dedicated as it is to putting back together a truly international political organ of the working class and to restoring communism.
To that end, we have always considered our regular general meetings as the best way of passing on a wealth of ideas, approaches and ways of going about things that are typical of our militant structure. Of all the many parties that have a following within the working class, our party is the only one that has managed, albeit on a quantitatively very reduced scale today, to conduct itself in a way that is consistent with its communist nature; something which our movement, in its complex and long-standing history, from Marx onwards, prefigured, and would have wanted to live on in the political organ of proletarian emancipation; even if the Third International was unable to fully understand the requirement for it and to put it into practice. Therefore it is a mode of being and functioning which is both old and the new, opposed to and incompatible even with those parties of the bourgeois class which in their day were revolutionary.
We give below summaries of some of the many reports which were presented.
The Shaping of Modern India
The Successive Modes of Production: Rome
The Crisis between the UK and the European Union
The Military Question: the First World War on the Eastern Front
Further Developments in The War in Syria
Report by the Venezuelan Comrades
The Communist Party of Italy and the Arditi del Popolo
The Communist Revolution in Hungary
The Concept of Dictatorship before Marx
The party’s Autumn general meeting was held in our Genoa office from 23 to 25 September. We decided again this time to bring the start of the organizational meeting forward to the Friday afternoon to leave more time to hear the reports, of which there were several more than usual.
Work was carried out in our usual focused and orderly manner, and as ever it was gratifying to note how our small forces manage, by applying the party’s methodology in a sound and consistent setting, can address even the most difficult and complex aspects of Marxist revolutionary theory; the overall aim being to defend the original destructive program of communism in its entirety and to continue down the clear path established by our great teachers.
Our materialistic dialectic consoles us in its serene certainty that it is not the strength of Party that will determine when the class prepares for battle and attacks and destroys the strongholds of capital, but just that we must collectively know how to stick rigidly to our line as regards the future course, sketched out against its will by the overwhelming World gigantism of capital; a line which promotes and refines the strangulation of capital to the maximum, secure in the knowledge that only the living presence of the concentrated social energy of the Communist party, in contact with the movement of the wider masses, will render the victory of communism possible.
As the final version of a report is often only arrived at after further study and work on the part of the speakers, and since publishing them can sometimes be delayed due to lack of space, we will provide here a brief summary of the reports for comrades and for our readers, aiming as far as possible to capture the essentials.
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Our careful study of the course of the economy includes in part a detailed and continuous quantitative survey of growth within some of the basic categories involved in the reproduction of capital. This work, which the party has always considered fundamental, has been carried out using a consistent methodology for at least fifty years. The data, necessarily obtained from bourgeois institutes of statistics, is evaluated for its trustworthiness, set in order and presented in a synthetic and expressive form at the party’s general meetings, bringing the listeners to verify empirically the economic laws discovered by Marx, and identify those of its patterns and rhythms which allow us to forecast future trends.
Since the mid 1980s we have witnessed a flow of capital from the major imperialist centres into the so-called BRICS, Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and, above all, to China. This has allowed a considerable growth of capitalism in these regions, above all in China, which has led to a temporary increase in capital’s average rate of profit on the global scale and to a considerable opening up of those markets. Only this has allowed global capitalism over the intervening years to avoid a 1929-type crisis.
Today we have come to the end of that cycle and a gigantic overproduction crisis, whose intensity will be far greater than 1929’s and is round the corner. If there is any recovery in Europe and Japan in 2016-17 it will be moderate and just a prelude to this next collapse.
At the following meeting we provided an update of the statistical surveys on trade as well. The United States were again in recession, in China industrial production continued to slow down (according to official figures),in line with a contraction in the production of electricity, steel and cement. Germany and the other European countries, apart from the UK, showed modest growth. Very restricted growth in exports, in constant value dollars, for all countries, China included.
The contradiction between the socialization of the productive forces and private appropriation leads to the cyclical crises of overproduction. Not all the overproduction crises are also social and political crises. Since the middle of the 19th century there have been three great historic crises which have posed the problem the taking of power by the proletariat: the great European crisis of 1848 when, after the bourgeois revolution in February, the French proletariat attempted to take power; the Paris Commune, a “storming of heaven” because the Parisian proletariat was immature on the theoretical and programmatic levels; and the years following the glorious revolution of 1917 in Russia, when all communists envisaged a communist revolution in Europe as possible.
There was another major crisis of overproduction in the years after 1929, but the international proletariat was unable to take advantage of it because of the falling back of the revolution in the mid twenties, accompanied and favoured by the disastrous tactic of the political united front which had been launched by the International, and which, instead of strengthening the communist parties in the various countries, weakened and confused them. The bourgeois counter-revolution would then triumph in the formerly communist Russian State.
The Second World War allowed capitalism to emerge from the crisis of the thirties and recommence a whole new long cycle of accumulation, interrupted only by short, shallow recessions restricted to individual countries. 1973 marks the definitive end of this period and from then on capitalism will pass from one overproduction to another in cycles varying from 7 to 10 years.
It was the sheer scale of the development of capitalism in China over the last thirty years which allowed western and Japanese imperialism to avoid a historic crisis on the scale of the interwar period. But today all of the conditions for a grave crisis of overproduction are present precisely in China, where the early signs of a slowing up of production are already evident and in particular in heavy industry.
The overlapping of the overproduction in China, and in general in the other countries where there is strong growth such as Brazil and India, with the economic crisis of the old decrepit capitalisms of the United States, Europe and Japan will lead to uncontrollable inflation which along with a diminution of production will see a collapse of the global financial system.
As the crisis gets worse financial interventions will no longer be able to hold back deflation. Measures taken by the central banks will not only prove ineffective but will provoke new bank failures.
The depreciation of securities is already expressed today in rates of negative interest. Over 10,000 billion Euros of public debt are now exchanged at rates less than zero: the financial institutions pay for lending to States, thereby admitting that their money is actually undervalued, giving notice of the next big devaluation to hit securities of all types.
The crisis, which will cause the bankruptcy of numerous States, and be far worse that the recent ones in Argentina, Greece and Ireland, cannot but weaken the ruling classes both morally and politically.
The Marxist scientific dialectic is not a crystal ball in which you read the future, but of the future it knows certain of its laws and conditions. After having studied the long history of capitalism, and drawn conclusions from observing the length of its industrial cycles, we can predict that this great historic crisis will begin in the very near future.
Today that new historical turning point is approaching, which could create the conditions for the overthrow of the power of the bourgeois class by the revolutionary proletariat, paving the way to a transition from the mode of production based on capital to one based on communism.
The long counter-revolution has corrupted or destroyed all of the proletariat’s organizations, in practice replacing solidarity between workers with competition and instilling in their minds a horrible confusion. Virtually everything needs to be rebuilt, to be recovered. Only a tiny minority, amidst the general disorientation, has managed to hold to the programmatic and theoretical line which goes from the Communist Party Manifesto of 1848 to the Russian Revolution in October 1917 to the foundation of the Communist Party of Italy in Livorno in 1921 and on to our small international party today.
But the counter-revolution hasn’t prevented proletarians from pressing their ongoing daily fight against the exploitation of their employers, nor capitalism from spreading throughout the entire planet and giving rise to the bourgeois revolutions of the coloured peoples, allowing the productive forces of Africa and above all of Asia to expand on a massive scale. In the old imperialist countries the frenetic accumulation of capital since the Second World War has pushed the socialization of the productive forces to unprecedented levels. All are irreversible material developments which make possible, anticipate, and facilitate the transition to communist society. The peasantry, in countries like Italy and France, represented around a half of the active population in the 1920s whereas today it is around 3%. The communist revolution which will emerge from this historic crisis will be much more powerful, and much more international.
There are only two possibilities in the face of this latest, epoch-making crisis. One is the revolutionary social and political destruction of capitalism; the other an imperialist third world war, also involving destruction yet far more damaging, and serving only to regenerate capitalism.
The war would involve a clash between two monstrous blocs, with the United States at the head of one side and China the other, and Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas all drawn into the global conflagration. Kissinger predicted a death toll of 500 million in the case of a third world war, which was perhaps a conservative estimate.
At the moment one of the principal contenders, China, is not ready. Chinese imperialism finds itself today in the same relation to the United States as the latter was to England at the beginning of the 20th Century. As regards production in heavy industry – steel, cement, electricity – Chinese capitalism has caught up with and indeed has overtaken the United States, not only in terms of sheer volume but also per inhabitant; but it is still a long way behind on the military and technical plane, even if it is making every effort to bridge the gap.
But before the war it is highly likely a catastrophic political and economic crisis would have erupted and reignited the class struggle between the proletariat and bourgeoisie.
The working class must form a vanguard that has rediscovered its program and the theory of Marxist communism, even if this process may not happen in parallel with a significant upsurge in the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie and its reorganization on the trade union level. This subjective condition, the existence of a communist party which had acquired a decisive influence within the working class, via a whole network of organizations formed by workers to defend their immediate interests, the trade unions, centralized under its leadership, is necessary in order to overthrow the bourgeoisie and take power by revolutionary means.
The existence of our small party is bound to favour and accelerate this process of constitution of the proletariat into a class – and consequently into a big global communist party – and also encourage and initiate the formation of class unions, which it will endeavour to unify and centralize on the national and the international scale.
Of course it will not be a linear process; there will be progress and setbacks and it will require the expenditure of a notable amount of energy on the part of this vanguard organized into party to win the great masses over to the communist cause; all the more so when bourgeois democracy, as is highly likely,will force a part of the party’s activity and propaganda to be conducted on a clandestine basis.
From capitalism’s crisis will then arise the emancipatory movement of communism, breathing new life into the whole of society and sweeping away the dark miasmas of the bourgeois corpse.
The accumulation of capital sends the productive forces into a paroxyism, leading to the production of a huge mountain of commodities. This productive fervour comes into conflict with the relations of capitalist production. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall sets a limit on accumulation: the greater the productivity of labour, the more that the return on capital, the rate of profit, goes down.
Capital counters the fall in the rate of profit by raising the rate of productivity, which can only be accomplished within very large installations. The rate of profit goes down while the quantity produced goes up. This means that an ever-increasing quantity of commodities gets dumped on the market. The markets get bigger but they can’t keep up with production and there is no equilibrium between production and consumption.
The incessant accumulation of capital comes up against the bottleneck of the market. In order to force this limit and start up the productive cycle again even before his commodities have been consumed, the industrial capitalist sells them to the wholesaler, who pays for them on credit. We thus have here a deferred payment, and the risk of a crisis in the case of reduced consumption. This gigantic mass of credit, without which it is impossible to produce, constitutes the main part of the circulation of money and is the basis of the entire credit system.
When commodities are piling up because the markets are saturated and insolvencies follow one after the other, there is a commercial and financial crisis; a crash, and the whole house of cards runs the risk of collapsing. At this point money becomes scarce, that is, no-one wants to lend it. It is what happened in the financial crisis of 2008-9; the banks no longer trusted one another and no longer wanted to lend to one another: the savings banks no longer lent to the investment banks, who stopped lending to capitalists and private individuals. There was an impasse.
The central banks intervened to prevent a general collapse. Early on they lowered the rate of interest to zero, later they intervened on the financial markets with a view to taking the place of the banks and authorizing a new circulation of money capital.
Through their intervention the central banks have prevented the dissolution of financial capital and a massive devalorization of capital. But they have transferred the risk to their balance sheets, thus priming a time bomb.
At the meeting the monetary dynamics was discussed (inflation, stagflation and deflation) and we looked again at an interesting chart previously shown at the January meeting which correlated, from the year 1872 onwards, phases of inflation and deflation with political and military events.
The doctrine which we subscribe has indicated to us, and the correlation of monetary phases with political events confirms it, that in general it is the deflationary phase which expresses the state of the general crisis of capital, and the fact that its developmental phase is over.
We described a series of inflationary phases in the world economy, specifically the crises which followed the First World War, using as evidence the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic and the intervention by international finance, mainly American (Dawes Plan), which allowed it to be overcome with a set of huge loans. Germany, its cycle of production (the real engine of economic recovery) recovered, due to the destruction of constant capital during the war, and the progressive clearing of the public debt; and supported by an expansive economic policy conducted by the State, returned a couple of decades later to re-propose itself as an aggressive and powerful imperialism on the world stage.
In the subsequent report the dynamics and the causes of inflation were taken up again, considered as State interventions in the political economy with the aim of keeping the public debt under control (we have dealt with the case of war costs), which the mechanism of the Gold Standard tried to remedy, before it was definitively abandoned in 1931 after the terrible deflationist crisis of 1929.
In general the inflationary process is an effect of the circulation of fictitious capital, as described in chapters 25,28 and 29 in Capital, Volume Three.
In the Second World War, capitalism learnt its lesson. in 1944, in anticipation of a new phase of post-war reconstruction, the Bretton Woods Agreement had already created a mechanism which provided for commercial deficits to be compensated with flows of capital from countries in a surplus. The dollar was rigidly anchored to the value of gold.
A different situation arose after the semi-crises of 1966 and 1969-70. In comparison with past crises, “stagflation” (a term that appeared after the 1973-4 oil crisis) was a new phenomenon. As capital accumulates, fictitious capital provokes a constant fluctuation in prices. Stagflation, on the other hand, announced itself with falling prices and reduced production: both appearing together didn’t seem to make sense.
Up until 1971, when the USA made the unilateral decision to abandon the parity between gold and the dollar, its expansionist fiscal policy had aggravated the dollar crisis by devaluing the currency, which in its turn provoked a significant increase in oil prices causing both a fall in production and an increase in prices.
From 1976 until the start of the new millennium the favourite remedy of the monetary authorities, Central banks in primis, was to contain the rate of inflation to a “healthy and acceptable” level, by avoiding sudden swings from high to low.
The report made to the subsequent General Meeting examined the financial evolution of China, which towards the end of the year prompted fear of an imminent financial and trade war with Europe and the USA. It was shown that the upheavals in the financial sector were serious but not decisive, and actually more or less on a par with the other global economies.
After the repeated falls in the Shanghai stock exchange in August 2015 the report, wanting to avoid the kind of overblown, knee-jerk analysis that appeared in the press, gave an overview of financial events in China stretching back over thirty years, from the creation in the early 1990s of the commercial banks, which after the outbreak of the Asiatic crisis in 1997 were already presenting a high percentage of worthless debt, and which were recapitalized by the government; on to the enormous influx of capital which took place at the beginning of the 21st Century, and finally to the unscrupulous “shadow banking system”, which extended the circulation of credit to the umpteenth degree by avoiding State restrictions, and which even the local governments draw on. The speaker drew attention to the mechanisms by which the Chinese shadow banking system resorts to the financial lever, which is on a par with crooked structures in the West, also thanks to the “off shore” financial market places, and in particular Hong Kong.
The global “hunger for profit” led in 2014 to an even bigger injection of capital, with the exposure of the Chinese banking sector abroad amounting to 1.1 trillion dollars.
Since the 2008 crisis Chinese capitalism has lost impetus, the crucial factor it has in common with every other financial system. The formation of speculative bubbles was the first reaction to the global crisis. In the absence of a genuine global upturn in terms of investments and profits, the over capacity and over production of Chinese capitalism is clear.
In 2015 the level of public investment was more than 40% of the GDP. This stimulus to the economy partly compensated for the changed international climate in the credit sector, though at the price of deterioration in the finance sector.
The apparent paradox of globalized finance has led to an imbalance in which on the one hand the American banks have subsidized the Chinese economy and the Asiatic countries in general, and on the other China has subsidized the American State by hovering up its bonds.
Throughout the 1990s China had maintained the rate of exchange between the yuan and the dollar, despite its exports to the USA implying a strengthening of its value. To prevent this, the Central Bank of China was selling yuan and buying dollars – prompting accusations from the American side of manipulation of the exchange rate – and building up a substantial foreign currency backup fund in case of need.
With the aid of some historical graphs, showing the yuan’s official exchange rate against the dollar, we saw that the devaluation, even if very sudden, barely interrupted a revaluation trend already decisively embarked upon back in 2010, and then maintained with slight oscillations only to finally fall back, with the August revaluations, to the level of three years ago.
At last January’s meeting the report set out instead to clarify certain aspects of the creation, localization, distribution and use of liquidity. It was made clear that with this term is meant not only cash in circulation, but the monetary total available for immediate use in all of its various forms.
The speaker presented a diagram of the course of interest rates over the last decade. In January 2016, after years of being set at zero per cent, the American Central Federal Bank decided to raise it from 0-0.25% to 0.25-50%.
The FED doesn’t “control the market” but is affected by its movement, in other words monetary policy is determined by the economy. This is an established fact, confirmed in years of crisis under its financial aspect, and no monetary device of the central banks has ever managed to change it. The economy cannot be “put back on the rails” by finance means. What has gone up has increased has been the price of shares and bonds, “virtual inflation” that is.
The amount of money present in the system is outside the control of the Central Bank, and it is actually generated in the banking system through the granting of credit: it is loans that that generate deposits not the opposite.
As far as we are concerned the theory and the practice of monetary management and circulation of liquidity plainly shows us that attempts to anticipate and resolve the crises of capitalism, purely on the basis of how they manifest in the field of finance, are doomed to failure.
Introducing a new chapter in our study of the history of India, our comrade described how the consequences of the Plague and of the economic crisis, which had affected key areas of the world, began to be overcome at the beginning of the 14th Century, in particular in Western Europe and in China.
Thanks to financial support from Genoan and German bankers, the tiny kingdom of Portugal started a systematic exploration of the African coast with a view to finding a direct route to the Moluccan Isles, the primary source of spices. In 1488 an expedition led by Bartholemew Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The Spanish court financed a Genoan, Christopher Columbus, who claimed he could discover a shorter route to Asia by sailing west.
This was a period characterized by the spread of new inventions, in the military field firearms: States would expand their administrative apparatus and make taxation more efficient to meet the growing costs of their armies. The result was a progressive centralization of power which in Western Europe caused the emergence of the absolute monarchies; and similar processes were taking place in Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Persian empire, in Japan of the Tukagawa, In Tang dynasty China and finally in the India of the Mogul Empire.
Around the second half of the 16th Century the entire northern part of the sub-Indian continent was finally united under the Mogul Empire. Within the peculiar context of the Asiatic System the process of centralization was truly remarkable. Victorious generals were obliged to hand over all of their conquered booty to the State. The centralization process included the progressive re-appropriation by the imperial tax authorities of the lands and benefices enjoyed to various degrees by the aristocracy, especially of the religious kind. These lands would be placed under the direct administration of the emperor.
Over the course of the 17th Century, cotton and silk manufactured goods, of which India was the biggest producer in the world, gradually replaced spices as the main commodities acquired by the European companies; in particular by the Dutch and English ones who had broken the monopoly previously held by the Portuguese.
The Mogul State embarked on a new expansionist policy marked by the transfer of its capital to Delhi. The empire became Muslim. But in the decades between 1720 and 1760 a large part of the sub-continent passed under the control of one or another leaders in the Maratha war. The Mogul Empire was transformed into a monarchy over an ensemble of largely autonomous provinces.
In 1717 the English Company had managed to obtain substantial commercial privileges in exchange for an annual payment. As well as a series of commercial establishments, known as factories, in various parts of India, the East India Company gained possession of fortified bases on the island of Bombay, at Fort St George (Madras) and in the settlement in Calcutta. Between 1720 and 1740, the Compagnie francaise des Indes Orientales became an increasingly dangerous competitor. It too had a number of thriving factories and fortified bases at its disposal including Chandernagore in Bengal and Pondicherry on the Coromandel coast.
The outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) in Europe, and the appearance in the Indian Ocean of the war ships of her Britannic Majesty and the French navy, ended up with the French and English companies embroiled in a conflict.
At the subsequent meeting our comrade opened the new report with a description, illustrated with maps, of the delicate political situation that had been created in India by the mid 18th Century.
The conflict between the English and French in India continued until the end of the European Seven Years War (1756-1763). The decisive battle was fought in the Coromandel where the English routed the French troops. From that moment on any influence or direct possession of the French conquered in the Deccan passed to the English, who in 1757 conquered all of Bengal and two years later the important city of Surat.
Some years later in the Deccan the English made a treacherous attack on a combined army of Maratha princes. The power of the Marathas had been broken for ever and the new hegemonic power south of the Himalayas was now the English. For India this effectively marked the beginning of the colonial era.
Though maintaining its role as a large joint-stock company committed to trade, by around 1765 the English East India Company had been transformed into a major territorial power. Indeed its possessions in India were much larger and more populous than the United Kingdom itself.
But the military expenditure and restricted earnings caused a financial crisis and forced the Company to ask for economic assistance from the Crown; which was granted, but at the cost of a Board of Control being imposed from England, through which Her Majesty’s Government took over the management of Indian policy from the Company.
During this period there arose the question whether the right to property in land, formerly the King’s, should pass to the Company or to the Zamindari, who were the Indian equivalents of the European landed proprietors. It was the latter solution which prevailed. The landowner, whose land was cultivated by peasant farmers, had to pay a fixed amount of land tax. Barring a few exceptions, the Bengalese Zamindari did not transform themselves into rural entrepreneurs, given that it wasn’t usually them who cultivated the land but rather those groups of peasant families who were already running the individual villages, a feature very characteristic of the Asiatic model of production. The class of Zamindari would become a pillar of the nascent colonial order.
Between the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Centuries, Europe and North America was hugely transformed as a result of a series of revolutionary changes both economic and political. The global economy was radically changed by the industrial revolution, already underway in England from the second half of the 18th Century but destined from the beginning of the 19th Century to influence the rest of the world.
European powers held sway over considerable areas of Asia both directly and indirectly, with their domination spreading over the course of the 19th Century to Mediterranean and then Sub-Saharan Africa. The balance of forces between States was also changed by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – which from the 15th Century had been considered Europe’s most dangerous enemy – as it succumbed under the pressure of the Austrian and in particular the Russian Empires, despite these being only minimally influenced by the industrial revolution.
If the political and military superiority of Europe devastated large parts of Asia and Africa, the requirements of the new social system based on capital induced the European powers to export their ideological and organizational superstructures, and the technology that underpinned the new mode of production, into at least some of their colonies.
Marx, with his observations on India in the New York Daily Tribune (August 8, 1853), highlighted England’s progressive mission very clearly: “England has to fulfil a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia”. But he had also warned the Indians that they “will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie, till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes shall have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindoos themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke altogether”.
The phase of social and economic transformation in India was dramatic and the colonial regime was responsible for a severe economic recession in the first half of the eighteen hundreds, marking a turnaround with respect to what had occurred in previous centuries.
During the same period the Crown decided to abolish the East India Company’s trading monopoly, adopting a policy of military expansion that continued until the Indian Mutiny in 1857. The aim of the English, equipped with a formidable military apparatus which was extremely costly but practically invincible, was to increase taxation on the land. But amidst the numerous wars of conquest, the first half of the century also saw an almost uninterrupted succession of rebellions.
As had happened during the Mogul Empire, the expansionist policies ended up by aggravating the financial problems they were designed to resolve. When the Company was abolished in1858 the Crown took over its substantial deficit, most of which was linked to the policy of conquest. The payment of this debt would be passed on to Indian tax-payers.
The entire Indian village system as shaken, and soon its traditional handicrafts would be hit by British exports. Marx, New York Daily Tribune, June 25, 1853: “It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindustan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons (...) This decline of Indian towns celebrated for their fabrics was by no means the worst consequence. British steam and science uprooted, over the whole surface of Hindustan, the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry”.
In addition, the very land property relations had been profoundly transformed by the zamindari system.
In the north of the sub-continent, from the Punjab to Bengal, a major revolt broke out among the Sepoys. This mutiny of the Indian troops soon drew in sizeable layers of the urban and rural population. Despite some initial success the failure of this Great Revolt was predictable from the start. Those who had anything to gain from the Company’s economic policy, namely merchants and financiers, and in particular many of the Zamindari, who had been transformed from Mogul officials charged with the collection of taxes into hereditary landed proprietors, sided with the English.
Another reason the revolt failed was the insurgents’ lack of a unified command structure. Between the 14th and 21st of September 1857 a British counter-offensive retook Delhi, and by the end of the year the other principle centres of insurrection, in particular the cities of Kampur and Lucknow, were also recaptured.
As well as paying a lot of attention to the great military mutiny Marx also discerned a principle of a national character in the fact that “Muslims and Hindus, renouncing their mutual antipathies, have combined against their common masters” [The Revolt in the Indian Army, New-York Daily Tribune, July 15, 1857].
The Company’s shares and debts were redeemed by the Crown and transformed into the initial basis of a debt, ‘owed’ by India to England, that would remain a constant factor in the economic relations between the two countries up to the outbreak of the Second World War.
“The British were the first conquerors superior, and therefore, inaccessible to Hindu civilization. They destroyed it by breaking up the native communities, by uprooting the native industry (...) The historic pages of their rule in India report hardly anything beyond that destruction. The work of regeneration hardly transpires through a heap of ruins. Nevertheless it has begun”. (Marx, The Future Results of the British Rule in India, London, 22 July 1853).
The English had to be better organized if they were to prevent a repetition of the 1857 revolt, or the ‘Indian Mutiny’ as it has become known in the official histories. The main issues which would be identified were weaknesses in the repressive apparatus and a lack of diligence with regard to its commitments towards its indigenous collaborators.
The Indian army was reorganized: composed of one British soldier to every eight sepoys the proportion would now become one to two. Changing the stance taken over the previous fifty years the British officers no longer resisted the observance of religious and caste rules by the Indian soldiers. English policy in India would be firmly orientated towards protecting and maintaining the privileges of all classes and groups which had traditionally held a predominant position in Indian society.
The second development was introducing, in particular in the Maharashtra and the Punjab, laws which forbade the urban merchant classes from lending money to the peasants and from acquiring their land. This arrangement strengthened the Zamindari and the class of well-to-do farmers who became the sole source of credit for the subordinate classes of the rural world, who still remained the essential foundation of Indian society.
The policy of the colonial government was directed toward maintaining an army and administration paid for by the Indian taxpayer, the so-called ‘Home charges’, and to implementing a policy which gave free rein to the sale of British industrial goods in India and turned the latter into an exporter of raw materials and agricultural products.
By the end of the seventies, despite the events of 1857 having persuaded the English that putting up taxes was dangerous, the Indian government had already been compelled to impose a revenue tax and to increase the land tax.
But two factors intervened. The first of these was a global decline in the value of silver compared to gold: since the Indian rupee was based on silver and British sterling on gold, this reduction entailed a sudden increase in the cost of the ‘home charges’, which were paid in sterling, due to the exchange rate against the rupee. The second factor was the cost involved in defending the imperial system in Asia and Africa. Indeed, over this same period Russia’s vigorous expansion into Asia continued to affect not only India but China as well, where, following the Opium Wars, England had considerable economic interests to defend.
The colonial government commenced a survey into the social composition of its Indian subjects, officially dividing them up on the basis of categories such as religion and caste. This process culminated in 1871 with the introduction of a ten yearly census which classified Indians according to various criteria. From the 1901 census onwards the castes were arranged by law according to a criterion of precedence linked to the customary ranking. British imperialism justified this process as one designed to protect the weakest groups, but its aim was clearly to reinforce the caste divisions and infinite particularisms.
During this period modern industry also started to develop. Localized to begin with in Calcutta, Bombay and Ahmedabad, it would then spread during the 20th Century into other northern regions. This entailed the appearance of the Indian working class and, in Bombay and Ahmedabad, a class of entrepreneurs. A modern industry that make only a partial impact on an economy and society which was still predominantly agrarian. The ruling classes would continue to be the large landed proprietors, the farmers castes, which were hegemonic at the local level, and in part the new class of traders in agricultural produce.
The English had pushed forward the expansion of the railway system, which was constructed mainly with military purposes in mind. On the one hand it supported English industry, which produced the rolling stock, on the other it facilitated the exportation of the goods with which the English manufacturers were paid. And the railway enabled the produce of the soil to be sold on the international market, and at considerably higher prices.
This traffic brought notable benefits to both the English and Indian ruling classes, but not to the impoverished peasantry, millions of whom would die in a series of famines.
Meanwhile public opinion was becoming politicized and swayed by ideals of a nationalist type. Two associations were especially active, namely the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha, founded in 1870 at Poona, and the Indian Association, formed in Calcutta in 1876.
In 1883, due to the efforts of Surendranath Banejea, a National Conference was convoked in Calcutta. In the words of its organizers, it “could be considered the first step towards a national parliament” and it was meant to periodically reconvene: a second session was held at the end of 1885. But during the same period the Scotsman Allen Octavian Hume convoked an Indian National Congress. At the first session around eighty delegates, representing various different organizations, took part. The main party of the Indian bourgeoisie was born.
The aim of this series of reports is to take a further look at the class struggles which took place in Italy after the First World War, which we may justifiably describe as an out and out civil war, and the Communist Party’s participation within it.
After the First World War was over, the proletariat, having only recently escaped the ordeal of the trenches, was immediately subjected to economic attacks. The trade-union struggle, of which the Italian proletariat can boast a proud tradition, immediately flared up again. The movement was spontaneous and broke out simultaneously from one end of the country to the other, in both towns and rural areas, and the bourgeoisie shuddered at the proletariat’s advance. And their terror was fully justified, given the red tide sweeping through Europe.
It would be impossible to give a full account of all of the trade union struggles, or even decide which were most significant in terms of duration, number of participants or successful outcomes; or which were the most violently repressed by the liberal-democratic State. The atmosphere and setting was one of imminent Civil War. The proletariat was instinctively and potentially on the attack and even the Italian petty bourgeoisie was to a certain extent resigned to having to accept the revolution’s victory.
But not so the big bourgeoisie and its State. And all the more so considering that the Socialist Party, supposedly its main enemy, was doing nothing to prepare and organize the proletarian masses to take power.
The occupation of the factories, accompanied in many parts of Italy by invasions of the large landed estates by the poor peasantry, was one of those situations in which the capacity of the political parties, and the degree of revolutionary preparation of the different classes, was put to the test; and the proletariat would prove sadly lacking.
The Socialist Party, faced with the need to act, faced with a real battle on the streets, no longer one of words, of demagogic statements in meetings and newspapers, beat a hasty retreat. And while the proletariat, held up in the factories, were waiting for the order to take action, the trade union leaders were negotiating their surrender.
The proletarian lack of action at this crucial juncture signalled the start of the bourgeois counter-attack.
While the Socialist Party was busy paralysing the working class struggles, the bourgeoisie was getting reorganized. The General Confederation of Industry and the General Confederation of Agriculture was formed. Industrialists and landowners knew they had to form a defensive united front and urgently needed both legal and extralegal armed organizations at their disposal if they were to take on the proletariat in a violent, head-on collision. Subsequently the Mussolinian organization would affasciare, ‘bundle together’, all these bourgeois extra-legal bodies.
The Police and the Carabinieri simply didn’t have enough personnel to maintain the social order, and the army, if put to the test, would probably have sided with the proletariat. The Nitti government therefore effected a rapid transformation of the public security apparatus by creating a shadow hand-picked miniature army, an army within the army, composed of troops of proven loyalty. In October 1919 the Royal Guard was formed, a body of 45,000 men. Also the Carabinieri contingent was increased to 65,000, customs officers to 35,000 and the spy service was provided with an additional12,000 agents. In addition 18 Mobile Carabinieri Divisions and 20 Mobile Royal Guard Battalions were formed.
The proletariat was organized by the Socialist Party, which was the biggest of the Italian parties in terms of members, organization and branches. As well as its huge representation in Parliament, with 156 deputies voted in with 2 million votes, it had 3,000 sections, ran 2,500 municipalities and organized millions of workers, labourers and peasants via the trade unions. But it was a party which wasn’t prepared to equip itself with a clandestine military structure.
As regards our left fraction within the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), a long quotation from the pages of Il Soviet (27/4/1919) was read out in which it was clarified, on the contrary, that on the proletarian and socialist side preparatory and organizational work had to be carried out with great discipline and above all without reacting to provocations and being lured into premature revolts. Armies cannot be improvised and revolutions do not happen at prearranged times. The party’s task was to prepare and organize its forces for the revolutionary attack and to pick the right moment to launch it, not to prematurely launch the proletariat into a fight it was bound to lose.
Commitment to this line on the part of the PSI’s youth organization was substantial and in earnest, and, as far it could, it attempted to set up an efficient illegal party apparatus on a national scale. Above all, it committed itself to undertaking the revolutionary work of dismantling the army from within.
The Communist Fraction was however very clear that the main revolutionary action that needed to be accomplished was freeing the party and the proletarian organizations from counter-revolutionary elements. But if we are to talk of a serious and disciplined revolutionary organization, we would have to wait until the split at Livorno and the birth of the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I).
The PSI could never have formed a serious revolutionary military organization because it was infected by the worst of the illnesses that can infect the proletarian movement: electoralism. This is because electoralism requires you to think of the State not as bourgeois, but as somehow above classes; as a body to be called on to maintain legality and constitutional order. The two programmes, the social-democratic and fascist ones, might differ as to their means, but not their end: the preservation of bourgeois institutions.
If before January 1921 the social-democrats had been revolutionary in words, after Livorno they no longer had any reason to mask their function of disarming and fragmenting the proletariat. Indeed by the 3rd August they had already signed the infamous “ceasefire agreement” (Patto di tregua) with the fascists. However the reason for the contacts between the socialists and the fascists was not just to restore “normal democratic life”, i.e., to preserve the capitalist regime, they were even considering sharing government. Through what was called “pacificazione degli animi” (pacification of minds), socialists, trade union leaders and fascists announced they would abandon any reciprocal animosity in order to unite against the country’s real enemies, i.e. finish off the communists.
The report then proceeded to examine the military structure of the Communist Party of Italy, which was already effectively up and running in the months before the party’s formal constitution.
The speaker started off with a summary of Marxism’s position on the use of violence in the class struggle. It is an issue that dialectical materialism approaches not in an abstract, moral way, but from a historical perspective. Social violence is not something to be judged but to be understood. It arises from the nature of capitalist social relations. Communism encourages it in the interests of the working class, and condemns its use by the bourgeois enemy. What is more, Communism sees proletarian violence as an unavoidable historical necessity, both against the defensive violence of the bosses and their State, and for the overthrowing of the power of the bourgeois class. This is a basic cornerstone of the party’s programme.
From which it follows we don’t get involved in the stupid game of identifying “who was the first” to break the law and to taint “normal, civilized political competitiveness” with violent methods. In the period under discussion, this system of buck-passing, which both socialist and fascists were party to, represented a real betrayal since it supposed that bourgeois reaction could somehow be avoided and that the proletariat just needed to defend itself from the anti-revolutionary reaction.
The communists supported instead the policy of the revolutionary attack, the putting into effect of which would be sabotaged by the pacifism of the other parties. Indeed it was precisely because of the intransigent position which was adopted by the party and its various organizations that they would become the preferred target of both the legal repression by the State, and of the extra-legal repression by the fascists. There were really only two options: an openly counter-revolutionary dictatorship, or the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.
The clash between the proletariat and the white guard was unavoidable, not because the latter was engaging in subversive actions against the legally constituted order but because they represented that order’s last line of defence against the revolutionary advance. Rather than plaintive protests against so-called subverters of the civil, legal and democratic order, it is the proletariat, understood as a revolutionary class, which is the “aggressor”, “provocateur” and “perpetrator of violence”, pursuing its historical objective to subvert the present order, even if the bourgeoisie does choose to stick to its own democratic and constitutional laws.
The magnificent battles that broke out in many proletarian centres demonstrated both the willingness of the working class to fight, and its tendency to instantly accept the Communist Party as its natural leader and point of reference.
The speaker dwelt a while on the organization of the Party’s armed squads, a subject which will be amply covered when the final version of the report will be published. The centre of PCd’I would expressly instruct the military organization to avoid any publicity or ostentatious display in order to make it more difficult for the enemy to gauge its strength. This quiet discretion would convince our enemy that the PCd’I’s clandestine apparatus was almost non-existent, a view which the Stalinists, though knowing it to be untrue, would repeat.
“The issue of revolutionary preparation [was posed] on this basis: to gather together, assign, organize – militarily as well – the forces which aim to change the foundations of the State, but only those that conceive of the change as an antithesis between two possible historical outcomes: either the preservation of the bourgeois State, which is democratic and reactionary at the same time, or the building of the proletarian State founded on the class dictatorship” (Il Comunista, August 7, 1921). This tactic of intransigence and “isolation”, shunning any central or local alliances with other political entities, meant the communist party attracted the most combative part of the proletariat; the part which, even in retreat, would stand up to the enemy under the classist banners of the revolution.
From the winter of 1921/22 onwards the communist military organization took on an increasingly definite shape and efficient and well-armed divisions would be formed in Trieste, Turin, Milan, Novara, Genoa, Florence, Rome and Bari. Alongside activities specifically related to armed struggle, certain selected elements were tasked with duties involving research, intelligence gathering, penetration of the army, of the army stores, of the military offices of the State, on their resources, etc.
Continuing on with the report the speaker took up the issue of the Arditi del Popolo (People’s Fearless Troops). The Arditi were a special corps which had been set up in 1917. Since its entry into the war the Italian State had set itself the task of forming special divisions of soldiers who were dedicated and “fearless”. The Supreme Command laid down that membership of the Arditi battalions would be strictly voluntary. Their composition was miscellaneous in the extreme: within their ranks could be found the entire range of fanatical interventionists, from the most narrow-minded of reactionaries through to so-called revolutionaries who believed they were taking part in a “revolutionary war”. Many ex-offenders and common criminals would also join up.
However, with the war over, the “heroic” life of the Arditi would also come to an end. Peace represented a future full of uncertainty. This fomented a series of grudges against pretty much everybody. The main targets of their frustration were Bolshevism, which rejected the notion of countries, and the socialists, who were opposed to the “revolutionary war”, along with the clergy for the same reason; then they also hated draft-dodgers, ‘neutralists’, the democratic parties, war profiteers, the exploitative capitalist sharks, etc, etc.
On January 1st, 1919, the Associazione Arditi d’Italia was formed in Rome, and on the 19th the Milan section was born.
Immediately the State decided that an organization of this type might continue to serve it by protecting the social order from the menace of Bolshevism. General Caviglia, minister of war at the time, would write: “in the murky political period Italy was going through they constituted a useful weapon in the hands of the government because they were feared for their propensity to take prompt and violent action”.
This human mass, drawn from every class and underclass, oscillating between different watchwords, including “extremist” and pseudo-revolutionary ones, expressed a generalized, rancorous discontent but was unable to equip itself with a programme.
On November 10, 1918, during the victory celebrations, the first official meeting between the Arditi and Mussolini in Milan took place and both sides expressed common intentions. When on the March 23, 1919 Mussolini formed the Fasci di Combattimento, the rally in Piazza San Sepulcro was chaired by the captain of the Arditi, Ferruccio Vecchi. The first fascist squads in a number of Italian cities were all founded by Arditi.
On April 15, 1919, in Milan, the Arditi attacked and smashed up the Avanti! office. What is more, the military cordon which the State had put in place to defend it had given the aggressors free access, something which would often be repeated from that point on.
From the pages of Popolo d’Italia Mussolini praised the Arditi’s action and General Caviglia, the person in charge of the investigation into the Milan events, congratulated the organizers.
After April 15 violent acts by the Arditi increased significantly and spread throughout Italy. The industrialists had realized they could use them as a white guard against the proletariat and the Arditi knew, by doing jobs for the industrialists, there was a rich harvest to be reaped. As the prefect of Milan would say: it was “one long tapping of the bourgeoisie for money, who, hoping for sure-fire guarantees, continued to administer funds to the said organization”.
Thanks to this generous assistance the Associazione degli Arditi experienced extraordinary growth, counting 10,000 members a mere three months after it was formed.
At the same time it became increasingly obvious there was a split between the right and left of this disorderly and chaotic movement, which, although to all intents and purposes reactionary, nevertheless used revolutionary slogans. Mario Carli, the founder of the Association, published an article in which he explicitly called for collaboration with the Socialist Party in order to struggle “against the present miserly, incompetent and dishonest ruling classes, be they called bourgeoisie, plutocracy, war profiteers or parliamentarism”. There then followed other articles pressing for mutual understanding, and for “socialism” and Arditism to engage in a common struggle which wasn’t “anti-national”.
In the name of the “mutilated peace”, the campaign for the Croatian port of Fiume to become part of Italy was also in full swing. An attempt was made to imbue the Fiume adventure with a left-wing, or even a “sovietist” connotation. Both during and after the occupation the anarcho-syndicalist Alceste De Ambris was D’Annunzio’s right arm man and D’Annunzio himself had no qualms about declaring himself an anarchist. Another important factor that contributed to the creation of this legend was the strict solidarity and collaboration established between the “soldier poet” and the head of the Maritime Workers’ Union, Giulietti. The D’Annunzian project of making Fiume the starting point for the conquest of Rome was not only shared by Giulietti but also by important anarchist sectors, including Malatesta himself.
If fascism, having abandoned its pseudo-revolutionary phraseology, had openly placed itself at the service of reaction, the Arditi movement still seemed to want to adopt a “left” position, going so far as to make itself the champion of “legitimate” workers’ demands. However D’Annunzio would be nominated honorary head of the movement and Mussolini’s financial help was accepted, which resolved the disagreements between fascism and arditism. By the end of May 1920, at the 2nd fascist National Congress, the Arditi had aligned with the fascists. As for D’Annunzio, in January 1921 he founded the National Federation of Fiuman Legionaries, forbade its members from joining the fascist party, and presented himself as defender of the workers’ “legitimate” demands.
Our party wasn’t fooled by these fluctuating demands which were of more than doubtful sincerity. On February 20, 1921, in the party organ Il Comunista, it clarified: “We can see that the polemics between the legionaries and the fascists are solely concerned with tactics. Both of them share the same goal [...] The communist proletariat will therefore find itself up against an enemy with two faces [...] Together Fascism and Fiuminism constitute the cellular organization of the counter-revolution, despite the superficial and only apparent dissension between the two tendencies”.
On the March 13 and 14, 1921, the Arditi held their first national congress in Milan. An agenda was approved in which it was affirmed that Arditi actions would conform to “fascist postulates which in the new post-war line up of political parties are the ones most directly focused on reviving the Nation and consolidating it against the attacks of an internationalism of a clearly foreign stamp”.
Arditism oscillated between its fanciful left-wing “revolutionary” ambitions and its anti-proletarian reaction in practice.
In the next report we will discuss the Arditi in more detail, but suffice to say here that they merely represented a split, within a split, within the Associazione Arditi and that their confused ideology had nothing that was distinctive or new. Within the brief time it existed there is no doubt, even if many of its militants were unaware of it, that it was an instrument of bourgeois power.
The migrant events have as a rule been considered progressive by marxism, since Engels 1845 “The situation of the working class in England”. Engels describes the phenomenon of the competition between native and migrant workers, with special reference to the Irish workers in England. In the mature stage of capitalism, imperialism, we can observe an accomplished division of labour on an international scale, with large migration events among continents.
The role immigration plays on proletarian struggle and on its internationalism is stressed also by Lenin who, in “Capitalism and workers’ immigration”, of 1913, demonstrates how a necessity of capitalism, immigration, produces the conditions for workers’ struggles: it is capitalism itself, especially in its imperialist stage, to uproot the workers from their own country to use them in competition with native workers; an operation that in the end is counterproductive, since workers eventually fraternize and ally against the common foe. Capital itself, since its origins, has materially determined the international character of its mode of production, of the proletarian class and its movement, its party and historical programme.
We have therefore reported on the results of a study we conducted on the increasing fluxes of labour from African and Asian countries to Europe. Unlike the slave trade, today chains are not necessary: for “free” men economical need is more than sufficient, and the risks associated to trade and the terrible journey are all on the worker.
At the start the comrade gave a quantitative account of the phenomenon, then he described the forces and instruments employed by the States to detect and control the new arrivals. When the new migrants become too many, as has always happened in history, when they exceed too much Capital needs, then a system is devised to contain them or send them back. A third part then showed how bourgeoisie is able to make profits with misfortunes and emergencies, through creation and management of “refuge” structures for migrants and political asylum seekers.
Thus for capital handling emergencies is always business; it makes profits on their journey, and makes far greater profits when they will enter the labour market, in programmed competition with native workers: a mass of poors expanding the proletarian reserve army.
At the same time, the bourgeoisie’s professional commentariat plays on the emotions and fears raised towards the alien, thrive generic “humanitarians”, on the one hand, and national-populists who advocate the defence of the fatherland from the invasion threatening work, security, home, health, etc., on the other. Both feelings excluding class solidarity, thus ensuring a split between migrants and natives, and preventing an alliance of the exploited against the bourgeoisie and its State.
The second part of the work confirmed that the “regular” migration is planned in such a way that the ruling classes of both countries (departure and arrival) may benefit: cheap labour on one side, money transfer on the other. Regular migration is a traditional instrument to maintain an equilibrium in the labour market, to the advantage of bourgeoisie. The number of “regular” aliens who can be admitted is fixed according to the needs of the national capital, and rigidly established in State decrees. In Italy the migrants were 5.014.437 in 2015, up from 1.341.209 in 2002. This means that the taxes paid by these workers are enormous if compared to their costs in welfare.
Migrants are ready to accept any job, for less: the average salary of a migrant worker is 26% less than for an Italian; seasonal and short term jobs are more common for migrants.
International counterrevolution has silenced the proletariat for a long time; imperialism, already in its senile and rotten stage, seeks its survival among new wars and sleight of hand of fake capital.
The force of the working class lies in its number. But numbers count if they are bound together by organisation, and enlightened by a coherent and historically adequate programme of social revolution.
a) The Libya war of 1911
The opening of the Suez Canal had brought back to the Mediterranean the eastward routes, controlled by the powerful British Navy with a series of military and commercial bases from Gibraltar to Aden.
Italian diplomacy manoeuvred to get the support of the other European powers to its occupation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, both under ottoman occupation, taking advantage of the situation in Turkey after the Young Turks revolution of 1908. The support was granted in view of hindering the French and German expansion.
The speaker made a chronology of the Italian armed intervention in Libya. Not only the manoeuvres of Italian capitalism were described, but also the action of the proletariat which, with strikes and occupations, opposed the war. The strikes found opposition within the socialist party and the unions leadership.
Without consulting the Parliament, on September 23, 1911, the war was declared.
The Italian General Staff based its plans on two wrong assumptions: that the population would welcome the Italians to get rid of the turks, and that, after a rapid war, the Istanbul government would immediately offer a surrender. Instead tens of thousands of local irregular troops joined the ottoman army.
Although the Italian occupation was confined to a few isolated coastal sites, the Italian government declared the annexation of Libya. The campaign for the control of oases against a strong guerrilla warfare required two decades of fighting, and the result was never stable.
A turning point occurred when the countries of the Balkan League (Greece, Montenegro, Serbia and Bulgaria), seen the weakness of the ottoman army, declared war on Turkey on October 18, 1912, to seize its European territories. However the peace agreement was ambiguous: Turkey only granted autonomy to Libyans.
The conclusions indicated the war as one of pure imperialist robbery, waged by a modern army, well equipped and supported by a good fleet, against a scarcely motivated Turkish army and far inferior fleet. Very important was the use of field radiotelegraph, the first motorized transports, the zeppelins and the first use od aircrafts for detection of enemy positions.
b) The Balkan Wars
The defeat of the Turkish army in Libya provided a chance for the Balkan countries to achieve their historical territorial aims, by attacking the weakened Ottoman Empire. This within the frame of a neverending Eastern Question, characterised by the Russian ambition to reach the Mediterranean and by the erosion of the still ottoman European territories.
Two blocs of alliances had been created among the great powers: the Triple Entente of France, United Kingdom and Russia, and the Triple Alliance of Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy,
The two Moroccan crises of 1904 and 1911 between France and Germany showed that a direct clash between the two States was to be expected soon, which would involve the two blocs, also in view of the intense and rapid armament started by Germany,
Russia, after the defeat in the war with Japan of 1904/05, had the army still under modernisation.
The Balkan States made a number of bilateral military treaties, called Balkan League, but not an unique treaty. Serbia wanted an outlet on the Egean or Adriatic Sea, and to unite in a Great Serbia the Serbian populations dispersed in the various Balkan countries, in this opposed by Austria-Hungary. Bulgaria wanted to get rid of the Ottoman Empire, create a Great Bulgaria with an outlet also in the Egean, extend to Ottoman Thrace and in Macedonia, with the port of Thessaloniki; it relied on an alliance with the Russian tsar.
Greece aimed at annexing Crete, Southern Albania and Dodecanese.
The contended areas were many, characterized by ethnic mixes, a guarantee for future strife. On the issue were read quotes from Lenin.
The war broke out on October 8, 1912.
After 40 days of fierce fighting during which all Turkish European territories had benne seized, difficult peace talks started in London. But on December 23 a coup of the Young Turks, willing to continue the war, blew out the peace preliminaries, and all delegations left London. New negotiations were resumed on May 13, 1913, in London, under the pressure of all European powers. The borders were those reached by the different armies.
The war did not solve the main contradictions and expectations. New alliances with European powers were designed, especially with Germany, which was looking for support for its policy of eastward expansion, “Drang nach Osten”, symbolised by the Berlin-Bagdad railway, as an outlet for its enormous industrial power.
c) Towards the First World War
The part on the First World War began with a list of the frictions that prepared the war:
- A graph on steel export showed that the share of Germany was far higher than the sum of the British and French ones;
- French imperialism was squeezed between the other 2,
- USA were already the first industrial power, with a thierd of all world production;
- Austria-Hungary was eager to settle with Serbia the issue over the control of Balkans;
- Italian imperialism aimed at controlling the Adriatic Sea, in competition with the ally Austria;
- Tsarist Russia, after the defeat by Japan, was looking for a revenge and for expansion towards the Mediterranean to the detriment of the Ottoman Empire;
- The movement of the Young Turks was looking for political and military achievements;
- The Balkan States were unhappy with the results obtained with the two Balkan wars;
- In the Far East Japan was an expanding regional power;
- The complex system of alliances, Triple Entente and Triple Alliance, although in theory defensive, was hiding the aggressive attitudes of the countries.
Germany started the production of modern warships, but couldn’t bridge the great gap with Britain. The German General Staff expected to defeat France first, and then Russia, being unable to support a contemporary attack on two fronts.
The French plan, for the reconquest of Alsace and Lorraine, in view of the great military inferiority, envisaged a transfer to north of most of the army, while waiting to know the enemy’s plans.
The British plan was to support the small Belgian Army with a small contingent on the terrain, while reinforcing its already strong control of the seas.
The Russian plan, in origin aimed at Austria-Hungary, due to an agreement with France envisaged the deployment of 800.000 men at the German border within 15 days from the declaration of war.
The Sarajevo assassination of June 28, 1914, started the usual diplomatic ballet. For the Germans it was important to act rapidly: “It’s now or never” said Wilhelm II; the initial favourable balance of forces would soon reverse and a decisive “blitz krieg” was necessary. On August 2, 1914 the German troops invaded Belgium.
While imperialisms mobilised, on our class front we could witness the cowardly collapse of the Second International, that delivered the European proletariat to the bourgeois militarism. After a quick mention of the birth of the Second International, of the hegemonic role of German Socialdemocracy and of the opposing currents within it, the speaker recalled the Basel Congress of 1912 and its positions on the expected and imminent war.
Already at the beginning the conflict appeared of large dimensions: 6.2 million soldiers of the Entente, against 3.6 of Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was called “of the six fronts” because it developed in several areas. The first was between Germany and France for the supremacy in Central Europe, the second between Germany and Britain for the control of the seas, the third between Austria and Russia for the Balkans, the fourth btween Italy and Austria for the supremacy over the Adriatic and Albania, the fifth between Russia and Turkey for the control of the Bosphorus., the sixth between Japan and Germany for the expansion of the Japanese empire in the Pacific region.
d) The Western Front
The report continued with the presentation of the most important developments on the west front, with the failure of the German plan which, after an initial rapid course, was obstacled by the unexpected Belgian reaction and by the British contingent. The advance slowed down in some points, or even halted.
The clash of the two armies involved the whole front; some battles in the first two months caused enormous losses without strategic gains. In Ypres alone, last “movement” battle, lasted 3 weeks, by which the Allies were able to avoid the German barging, the losses amounted to over 200.000 men.
After this first series of battles the war changed, turning into a “position” one; from the Belgian coast to neutral Switzerland was laid a double system of trenches, separated by only a few hundred metres. On this front alone were dug 25,000 kilometres of trenches and alleyways. The soldiers died there at the rate of 6,000 a day, also due to the terrible hygienic conditions.
The short distance between the trenches favoured fraternization between soldiers of opposed armies, as with the spontaneous “Christmas truce” of 1914.
e) The Austrian-Serbian Campaign
The Austrian-Serbian war, which developed in three consecutive campaigns between August and December 1914, revealed unexpected inefficiencies in the experienced Austro-Hungarian army, unable to settle the issue in a short time with the small but tenacious Serbian army.
The two armies were extremely different. The Austro-Hungarian army was modern, well equipped and trained to the large, Napoleonic-style campaigns; but also multi-ethnic, with a strong component of soldiers of Slavic origin who were easily made prisoners, especially officers, to pass eventually in the Serbian army.
The Serbian army was divided into three levels, the third of which did not even have the uniforms and a valid armament, but it consisted of tenacious highlanders with strong motivations for war, grouped in agile small formations.
The theatre chosen by the Austrian commander for the invasion of Serbia was the border area close to the Danube, the Sava and the Drina, characterized by rushing watercourses in steep gorges or thick forests, an area which was totally unsuitable for his army, which needed the possibility of rapid movements, while there were few roads in that area, and not a railway line.
The first campaign from 12 to 24 August 1914 began with the bombing of Belgrade. Fights lasted until August 19 when the Austrians were forced to retreat, leaving a large amount of material on the field. In just 12 days of war, the Austrians had 22,000 of dead and wounded and 25,000 prisoners, most of whom were slav, plus the loss of all war material. But the most damaging defeat for Austria was on a moral level, for an empire of over 50 million subjects.
The Serbian success was due to the knowledge of the territory, to the support of the population and to the best strategic lucidity of the commanders.
Russians asked Serbs for some offensive in order to delay the departure of Austrian contingents destined for Galicia, where the Russians were in trouble after having suffered two defeats in the battles of Kraśic and Komaróv.
The defensive success of the Serbs in their territory did not guarantee them at all for an offensive in an enemy territory, which they did not know as well, for lack of supplies, in a territory whose Croatian, Hungarian and Romanian populations would not be equally supportive.
The Serbs’ attack north of Belgrade was promptly neutralized, causing significant losses. The Austrians attacked from Bosnia, but the Serbian forces moved to the counter-offensive with the support of Montenegrin forces forced, with hard fights, the Austro-Hungarian army to step back.
Since October 4, due to the heavy rains, which made the few existing roads impassable and the rivers swollen, large scale operations ceased, and even on this front began the trench war.
In the third campaign, from October to December 1914, the Austro-Hungarian offensive resumed with the arrival of reinforcements and developed with particular hardness on the Valjevo plateau, from which Serbs were expelled only on 6 November.
But the Serbian situation soon became critical both for the scarcity of ammunition and the conduct of the trench war to which the soldiers had not been trained, and desertions began in their files. After retreating the troops to Belgrade’s defense and repressing the mutinies, a counter-offensive was launched on a 120-kilometer front, now possible with the arrival of French ammunition through Thessaloniki. After fierce clashes, the Serbs regained control of the Valjevo plateau and the Kolubara upper course.
The Austrian losses were very heavy in men and in material; in addition, about 20,000 soldiers of Czech, Serbian, Croatian, and Slovene nationality of the multiethnic Austro-Hungarian army had gone into the ranks of the victorious Serbian army, perhaps counting on some help for their independence.
The second campaign was undertaken just as at Lvov, in a giant battle, was at stake the fate of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, while five of their armies were senselessly engaged in Serbia.
Serbs did no have sufficient means to get a brilliant victory; in the only final battle of Kolubara, 70,000 men fell due to injuries and the disease, more than 18,000 were wounded and 15,000 prisoners. In the early 1915s in Serbia a terrible typhus epidemic with 300,000 deaths will come out.
Vienna progressively withdrew troops to direct them to the front of the Eastern Alps just opened with Italy.
With the entry of Bulgaria to the side of the Central Empires at the end of 1915, a new offensive against Serbia will be launched, whose army, weakened and attacked by many fronts, will definitely be defeated.
e) On the Eastern Front
Two were here the political questions: the occupation or partition of Poland between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia and the Panslavist expansion of Serbia.
The enormous extension of the eastern front, from the coasts of Lithuania to the slopes of the Carpathians, in areas of different nature, forests, lakes, swamps and vast plains, conditioned the strategic plans on both sides, lacking men and means to saturate it, as it was the case on the western front. It resulted in a mixture of movements, with deep offensives, and trench warfare. The modern war now needs efficient rail lines for the rapid transport of large quantities of men and materials, and the scarcity of such lines in Russian territories was seriously hampering an in depth German invasion.
Russia was strongly pressed by France, with which it was bound by a military treaty, to open a broad eastern front in order to ease German pressure on the West. In addition, Moltke, the supreme German commander, who felt it was essential to avoid an invasion of Germany, organised the rapid deployment of entire divisions from one front to the other, according to needs, which was possible in Germany for the extensive and efficient rail network; for this it was also called the "train war". The strategy adopted by the Austro-German command, after excluding an offensive in Russian territory, was to attract Russian forces to a chosen area and to block them with reduced forces, the priority being the victory on the Western front, to which the best and more consistent units were destined.
Russia had to quickly intervene in a conflict to which it was unprepared on the strategic level, and for armaments, supplies and logistics. Its first objective was the front with Austria-Hungary, to which the best and largest units were destined, but soon had to set up new plans for both a southern attack on the Austrian front and north with the invasion of Eastern Prussia, where there were small German forces, mostly reservists and secondary groups. But the large amount of men at the disposal of the Russian command in Prussia was poorly armed, with poor artillery ammunition, the cavalry had no adequate supply of fodder; not having telegraph cables they often communicated unencrypted by radio, thus providing important information to the Germans.
The Russian offensive started on August 17, 1914 in the northern Prussian region with repeated bayonet assaults, which were blocked with significant losses by the small German forces, but which had precise artillery. Three days later the Russians advanced on two routes: to the north and south to Berlin.
The Russians on August 26 continued to advance in the southern Prussian sector, which was now considered easier. Moltke moved units from the western front including a cavalry division, here most important. The largest battle took place at Tannemberg, lasted almost three days and turned into a real catastrophe for the Russians. The Russian losses were enormous: of the 192,000 Russians, 50,000 died in combat, the prisoners were 92,000; over 500 of the 624 cannons of the II Russian Army were lost to the enemy.
After this unexpected success to the south, the Germans headed north to the Masuri lakes, where they thought they would repeat it. However, the attack was delayed by Russian defenses, which began a controlled 100-km deployment, abandoning Prussia and moving beyond the Lithuanian border of the Niemen River. The Russian offensive in Prussia was over, with a huge failure and huge losses: about a quarter of a million men were lost, with huge amounts of armaments.
Energetic and positive, instead, was the Russian action in Galicia against the Austro-Hungarians. A first Austrian advance was blocked, and on August 18, 1914, the first and powerful offensive was launched, while the Austrians were simultaneously engaged in the sluggish and losing campaign against Serbia. The 300km-long front, between August 23rd and September 11th, advanced to the Russian conquest of Leopoli and the siege of the Przemyśl fortress, a garrison of 120,000 men and an important weapon depot, inflicting heavy losses on Austro-Hungarians.
While the Germans were stopped and pursued by the French on the Marne, abandoning any hope of a quick victory, they could instead penetrate the Polish provinces annexed to Russia since the XVIII century. The Austrians, on the other hand, were driven back from Russian Poland where they had penetrated, and further south they were fighting for not being pushed beyond the Galician border: a strategic rather complex situation. In the sector, 1.2 million Russian soldiers were concentrated, which had 225,000 deaths, wounded, detained and missing, against 1 million Austro-Hungarians, who accused the loss of 300,000 men and 100,000 prisoners, many of whom were Slavic nationalities and in dozens of thousands gave themselves up to the Russians.
Hindenburg’s attacks in Silesia did not have the desired effect, but prevented the Russian invasion of Germany.
Great Britain made available to Russia, with adequate economic guarantees, the massive amount of war material needed in view of the spring recovery of the fights. In April 1915 the Russians reconquered Przemyśl fortress and turned the Austro-Hungarians out of the positions they had conquered.
The German command, in view of the precarious situation in Austria and the imminent entry into the war of Italy alongside the Entente, decided on a powerful offensive with all available forces, which began on 2 May 1915 in the Gorlice-Tarnow area of Galicia, concentrating in a hurry on a front of just 40 km and in secret 14 divisions against the Russian 6. The German maneuver was overwhelming, penetrating, after breaking in two of the Russian lines, for 150 km. Przemyśl and Lvov were recaptured, while a second northern offensive intended to close the Russians in a sack, advance to Brest-Litovsk, the most important stronghold of the western Russian front, and a third in July on the river Bug and Vistula, closing the whole game.
In order to avoid encirclement, the Russians had to retreat a lot, opposing disastrous counteroffensives, losing Brest-Litovsk and Warsaw. As the Germans to the north approached Riga, the Austrians, after Romania joined the war, came to the south to Tarnopol near the Russian border.
In this "Great Retreat" the Tsarist army lost nearly half of the officers, especially senior officers, abandoning about 500,000 sq. Km of territory; they adopted behind them the tactics of scorched-earth with forced evacuation of the entire resident population.
Supplies were difficult, so it took months to reorganize troops for a general counter-offensive. This employed 600,000 men in an attack that started on June 4th from the swampy areas of Bucovina. On a 350 km front, it reached the targets and in just 8 days were captured about 3,000 Austrian officers, 190,000 soldiers, hundreds of cannons, 700,000 machine guns: one third of the enemy forces; a few days later the Russians entered Czernowitz, the easternmost city of Austria-Hungary.
But the Russians could not exploit this success because they too suffered heavy losses and because they would have gone too far from the supply bases, badly connected due to the poor state of the railways. The Russian advance stopped at the Carpathian chain also for the continued massive desertions: since the beginning of the conflict, total Russian losses had been well over 5 million men.
Romania, sided with the Entente, was defeated and occupied in a short time by the Germans.
The war on the seas changes, whose priority, especially for the Germans, is to sink the supply convoys to the States of the Entente, mainly from the USA and Canada. The US, so far neutral, after the continual sinking by the German U-boats of their ships, declare war on Germany at the most opportune time.
f) The Revolution in Russia
In all belligerent countries the shortage of food is felt on civilians and the military, and rebellions and desertions increase, with thousands of executions and decimations, especially in 1917.
In Russia, the situation is more dramatic due to the shortage of food, due also to the reduction of male workforce in the countryside, and the lack of raw materials and spare parts in the industry. The number of strikes increases rapidly; at Petersburg on February 18, 1917, a great strike starts in Putilov militarized workshops, whose participants are attacked by police and army units.
On February 27, a soldiers unit refuses to shoot at the protesters, passes over their side and shoots the officers: it is the beginning of the revolution. On March 15, the Tsar resigns and Kerensky’s moderate bourgeois government is born; despite promises, the war continues and an offensive in Galicia is ordered.
This, after an initial success, turns into failure. The Russians are not pursued by the Austro-Hungarians, for fear that troops would learn the revolutionary spirit. The number of Russian units giving up fighting increases.
On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks assume power and demande armistice to Germany; the preparations for the peace begin, and an armistice is signed in Brest-Litovsk only on March 3, 1918, with a significant Russian loss of territories, population and coal mines.
After closing the eastern front, Ludendorff can transfer those troops to the western and Italian fronts.
The Tsarist army is not defeated by the enemy but by the internal enemy of the Revolution.
In 2016 the party continued its presence in Venezuela with the sections of Caracas and Valencia. These have held regular meetings and continued the activity of study and propaganda. The party’s press, albeit with modest circulation, has been punctually distributed both in Caracas and in the State of Carabobo.
In Carabobo (one of the 25 States in Venezuela, the one with the largest concentration of factories) we maintain contacts with groups of workers, proposing the unification of trade union struggles and the formation of the class union. In 2016, there were two union meetings in Moron, in April and May, in the Fuerza Laboral headquarters of the Eje Costero, with the participation of workers and trade union representatives from various manufacturing sectors and representatives of some trade unions and of political currents within them.
Manifestos were produced which appealed to the economic struggle, which, although in part with classical positions, will not necessarily be actually promoted, because the unions and the rank and file groups that participated are influenced by opportunistic and law abiding positions.
We maintained contact with court workers in the State of Carabobo through the distribution of party propaganda.
We have also maintained close contacts with workers from many large factories and we have been able to promote the unification of their claims in the face of dispute over new collective agreements.
We have criticized the political currents that contend for the control of the Federation of Oil Workers, as appeared in the article we published in El Partido Comunista no. 7.
Again on Irish history
The first chapter of the report summed up Marx and Engels’s assessments of the Irish question, the first colony in the modern sense of the term. The extended text appears on this same issue.
Thus summarized the essence of modern Irish history, the second chapter covered the period up to the 1907 Belfast strike.
Since the development of socialism in Ireland, until the war of independence, had been closely linked to the so-called "socialist awakening" of the 1880s in Great Britain, it was first presented a succinct panorama of the English movement, on the basis of quotations from Marx and Engels. At the time, roughly from the end of the 1870s onward, the workers had tried to express an independent class party and to separate their policy from that of liberalism.
The first attempt was the Democratic Federation, born in a vague alliance between radicals and socialists. This, during the Earth War in Ireland of the years 1879-1882, would oppose the Gladstone government by establishing tight ties with the Irish Land League.
Liberated by most of its bourgeois radical elements, in 1884 it changed its name into Social Democratic Federation. Within the same year it would split to form the Socialist League. But according to Engels no organization had reached a minimum of clarity.
The rapporteur therefore recalled the great stimulus to the economic and political organization come from the great dockers strike of 1889.
The Independent Labour Party would later fight for a law favourable to the working class and trade unions.
Finally we heard how sections of the British National Union of Dock Labourers were created in Ireland, and the main phases of the 1907 harbour strike. Particularly worthy of note was the great result of being able to unite the working class above sectarian-religious divisions.
On the other hand, a growing integration into the bourgeois government apparatus of the British trade unions became evident; the union leaderships already operated as divisive agents within the working class with their corporative and reformist approach. This corruption of union leaders eventually led, as a reaction, to the formation of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union. The story of its subsequent developments will be dealt with in the third chapter.
Part of our meetings is always dedicated to the struggles of the working class. Greater space is dedicated to the most important ones on a global scale, and to those where we can intervene through our communist union fraction.
As with any other field of action, the party must be fully aware of its working methods and results and, to the possible extent, provide the support of all its forces.
We refer our comrades and readers to the detailed and fully commented documentation on our trade union press, interventions and distributed texts, which we always report in a timely fashion on the party’s website.
The report was in particular on three activities carried out in Italy: action in the Unione Sindacale di Base, that in the SI Cobas and the criticism of the conduct of FIOM in the dispute over the renewal of the metalworkers contract.
At the end of January 2016, the USB split was led by executives from Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Lombardy; it had been smoldering for at least a year, and it led to the birth of the Sindacato Generale di Base (SGB). This new small union then tightened a federative covenant with the CUB.
The Coordination for the Class Trade Union, an internal opposition group in which our comrades are participating, has expressed a negative opinion about the split.
Our intervention was not addressed to the leaders who for decades have been at the top of the grassroots organizations, with positions and methods opposed to ours, but it was an attempt to detach from them that large group of union delegates and militants who had joined the appeal of the Coordination for the Class Union. An essentially failed attempt since almost all the signatories to the appeal who belonged to the local structures led by the scissionist leaders followed them in the new organization, although some of them shared some of our complaints about their opportunism.
Following the split, the USB Coordination for the Class Union published two documents: an article explaining the position of the Coordination about the split and an appeal with which it was intended to verify whether the severe split had caused a reaction within of the union favouring a discussion on the points raised by the Coordination. It became clear that the split had damaged the small internal opposition body for the loss of militants who had gone over to the new organisation, and because the reaction inside the USB was to tighten the ranks to save the organisation and to not support the request for an extraordinary congress.
In view of the March 18, 2016 general strike, proclaimed by CUB, SI Cobas, USI and SGB, to which USB has not adhered to, the Coordination has published a document titled "Adhering and supporting the general strike" in which the need to abide by to the practical address of the unit of action of workers was reiterated. The strike was joined by USB: the FIOL-FCA factory group in Termoli, that at the Fondazione S. Maugeri of Varese, a group of tram operators from Naples ANM who had already left the union but remained in contact with the Coordination, and other scattered militants.
On Sunday, April 3, a so-called National Assembly of USB members was held in Milan. In fact, it was a conference prepared in detail, with various pre-arranged interventions, organized to give proof of union strength in one of the most affected cities. For the assembly an intervention was made on behalf of the Coordination, which one of our comrades should have read – which of course was not allowed – and that was published on the Facebook page of the Coordination.
The ratification of TUR membership, the February split, the lack of a call for an extraordinary congress, were all factors that weakened the Coordination, eventually leading some of its most active members to the decision to leave the USB to join the SI Cobas. This decision was not shared by our comrades.
A week after our general meeting in Parma, we participated in that same city, on Saturday, January 30, in the national event of SI Cobas – successful – in support of the struggle at Bormioli of Fidenza, handing out a leaflet specifically tailored and translated into French and Spanish: "Against the united front of the bourgeois State, bosses and regime unions - For the unity of labour struggles - For the Class Union", which reads in Il Partito Comunista number 376.
We then participated in the preparatory assembly and the first strike at Tortona interport, which was also successful, on 9 February.
On March 18 we participated, with the leaflet "For the united and international struggle of the working class against the regime of capital", also reproduced in number 376, in the general strike proclaimed by CUB, SI Cobas, USI and SGB, in the picket at dawn at the Tortona Interport, at the morning event in Milan, very successful, and in the afternoon in Bologna, which was also satisfactory.
Finally, we participated in Milan on 1 May, spreading our document, and on June 4th, in solidarity with the struggles in France, which, due to the current crisis, have marked a partial retreat in mobilization capacity compared to past.
We also participated in the general strike of metalworkers on Wednesday, April 20 proclaimed by Fiom, Fim and Uilm, with a leaflet titled "For the resumption of a real fight against the master. For the rebirth of a class union that unifies workers’ struggles. Out and Against Collaborationist Trade Unionism, "which is read in Issue 377 of Il Partito Comunista. The strike had been called for in support of the dispute over the renewal of the national contract. It was a unitary action of the three regime unions in this important category that seems to be closing an eight-year cycle marked by two "separate" contractual renewals, which were signed only by FIM and UILM and not by FIOM.
This rediscovered union unity is apparently a debacle for FIOM, which abandons the positions of these eight years, recognizing in fact the previous separate contracts as well as the conditions of the FCA-FIAT workers, subject to a contract other than that of mechanical engineering.
For this eight-year cycle of the FIOM action we have reported in detail in a long article on our Italian press.
At the next general meeting, the rapporteur came back to the small trade unions splits that marked the scene of workers’ organizations in Italy: the USB split of January 2016, which led to the formation of SGB; the exit (not really a splitting) of a minority part of the "The Union Is Another Thing" area from CGIL to USB in May 2016; the one that hit the SI Cobas leading to the formation of the small SOL Cobas, the following June. Finally, the move of a group of union militants who had animated the USB Member Coordination for the Class Union to SI Cobas.
Although these are very different cases, they have in common a movement in the direction opposite to that wished for by the party with its union fraction since when, in the second half of the seventies, it indicated to the workers the road to the reconstruction of the class union outside and against CGIL, the road for its recapture being judged definitively closed.
This judgment was based on three legs: the evaluation of the thirty-year course of that union (since its rebuilding from above in 1944), although it went through periods of intense labour struggles; the experience in that time span of the battle our fraction waged within it; the necessity that large groups of workers were experimenting, in order to fight, to organize themselves out and against it, and which would provide ground for the formation of basic trade unionism in subsequent years.
Giving the direction of abandoning a trade union is not something the party can do lightly. This is occurred in view of an actual movement in this direction of the membership base. This perspective was indicated and explained in a clear, unambiguous manner, such that it was not sudden and unexpected when the need occurred.
The party described the CGIL as early as at the time of its rebuilding as a regime syndicate, and since then it indicated a twofold way for the rebirth of the class union: either its recapture with the physical expulsion of corrupt leaders or a rebirth out and against it. Nothing ambiguous or hidden: the immediate practical guide from 1945 to the second half of the seventies was the first; since then it has become the second.
This clarity was lacking in the split that has recently led to the formation of SGB. Even in "The union is another thing" those who fled did not face and prepare in a clear, serious and in-depth manner the issue. Behaviours that are the reflection of political opportunism of union leaders.
USB Member Coordination for the Class Union militants passed to SI Cobas, finally, acted contrary to the orientation of workers in their category and their workplace.
a) Ancient-Classical Variant - Greece
Exposure came to expose the ancient-classical variant of the secondary production form. It’s based on slavery. Wage slavery is a particular form of the most general exploitation of man over man, which connotes all modes of production divided into classes.
After referring to the essential geography and history of classical Greece, the report described the dawn of the new form of production. Mycenaean civilization is a social formation connecting the Asian and ancient variants. There are elements that characterize Asian societies: Templar and Palace Economy; large portions of the territory still in collective possession; rigid centralization in the use of labour. The novelty is represented by the exceptional development of exchange value; by the appearance of direct production aimed at the commodity market; use of money, etc.
Athens was the first to make a jump out of primitive communism. The other cities, still immersed in the "golden age," could only adapt, carried by the progress of the production forces.
Former communist organicism had now been defeated. The germ of exchange value had broken natural relations. At this point, commodity trading exacerbates the rising division into classes and their struggle; the production of commodities, implying the separation of purchase and sale, causes the producer to be indifferent to the product of his work, the product being autonomous and dominating him. Production for the market allows a formerly unthinkable abundance of products. Each city begins to exploit intensively the natural resources of which it is rich, starting to modify the surrounding environment. The commodities become independent and causing extra work, they are produced for the purpose of creating a profit and not for their consumption.
Agricultural work in common, the foundation of the original communes, gives way to small farmers. The land lot will in the beginning be allocated temporarily and periodically redistributed; then individual private property has the upper hand, as opposed to the collective, public property.
The city is the place where the new form of production and class State power develops. Only the violence of the ruling class allows Solone and Cleisthenes to implement their institutional reforms. Old production relationships must be canceled, also by law, and local councils stripped of their powers, because they obstacle the ruling class in its drive to dominate the immediate producers.
The process of expropriation proceeds and already at Solon’s time it can be said that most land is in the hands of few families; the poor unable to pay the rents are reduced to slavery. Individual property is at odds with the collective and communal one.
Historically, the fragmentation of the clan’s possessions concerns movable goods in the beginning, while land ownership is still collective between families. Citizenship is linked to property and the non-owner is also not a citizen.
Like all social relationships, a person’s personal subjection of a producer to a non-producing owner assumes its meaning only within the specific mode of production.
Slavery in Primitive Communism begins with the defeat of an opposing tribe or clan that can not be absorbed by the victorious community. The situation changes with the passage to the form of secondary production; procuring slaves becomes an activity alongside the others and among the most profitable.
Alongside the contrast between city and country, the social division of labour develops and within it the distinction between intellectual workers and manual producers. The birth of State and politics favours the growth of a multitude of intellectuals to compose the praises of new production relationships and theoretically mark the boundary that separates the dominant class from the dominated class.
On the birth of the State, the rapporteur has read a quote from the "Factors of Race and Nation". The contradictions between producers now explode; a complex mechanism is needed to prevent class struggle from turning into open rebellion, putting the power of exploiters at risk. Only the owners can be community members. The magistrates differ. Already at the time of Draco (620 BC) participation in the community government is done on a census basis. Democracy is the rule of a class society, and the Athenian Solone sanctions at the legal level what the underlying structure has already created. The population of Attica is divided into categories based on wealth and not on hereditary nobility, and wealth becomes the prerequisite for obtaining a public appointment.
The contrast is perfected when conflicts take place between parties representing the different classes and subclasses. The fight is open. Assemblies increase in power, but in the new accomplished class situation they become organs of the new class power. The State becomes the defender of wealth.
The division into classes of antiquity is also and above all division between free men and slaves; there isn’t yet the free wage worker. Producers still have many divisions within them, so the contrast is not yet between non-proprietor worker and non-worker proprietor.
The rapporteur concluded the series of reports devoted to classical Greece by addressing the analysis of the superstructures generated by the division into the classes of society. He described the legal framework characterizing in particular the city of Athens. The ruling class needs special tools, a specific machinery to maintain the submission of the lower classes.
For Engels of "The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State" contradictions are first generated within the blood ties, and then concern community relations. The passage from a matrilineal society to the patriarchate and to the monogamous family sanctions the subjection of women. Already in ancient Greece, the matrimonial institution is the act of buying a bride. The subjection of the female is also sanctioned by the new hereditary right and the lineage along the paternal line. The institute of primogeniture prevents the subdivision of the inheritance.
At this point the comrade made some considerations on the origins of ancient Greek and archaic philosophical thinking, in the beginning materialist and dialectical. A scientific thought in which the study of nature was accompanied by an investigation into man and society. Great scientists were the exponents of the so-called ionic school, outlining the two methods of approach that we would call today mathematical and physical.
There are concepts of the complex Platonic thinking that we can claim in the same spirit with which we claim primitive communism, or the first materialist and socialist reflections, or utopian socialism. Democracy is considered to be the worst form of constitution for the city, because it produces extreme wealth and poverty, and leads to the worst human leanings. Criticism attacks the two pillars of the society of the time, private property and the family, the terrain that nourishes the worst evils for the human community.
Plato meant the wished for government of philosophers as composed of men who intended to act in the city’s interest. And when philosophers have come to power, how will they convince others of the goodness of their constitution? In "The Republic" it is argued that this will happen "with persuasion and with force": we want to understand it as a germ of the need for the party and the dictatorship of the party, of propaganda and revolutionary violence.
Aristotle is in fact the theorist of conservation, describing reality as it appears to the immediate perception, theorizing fixed logical structures, lacking in the living relation to the matter of which they are the reflection.
The report finally ended by referring to a possible Marxist study of the most ancient mythology and literature of all peoples, free from scientism prejudices that invalidate modern bourgeois historical research. Our doctrine traces from it the blurred remembrance of the original communistic life. Epic heroes and the new pantheon imposed by the winners are image of conflicts, clashes and battles between ethnic groups, peoples and classes, ending with the victory of civilization. That of the defeated Gods is the real blood of the original Communism. The winners will in turn be defeated by new winners in a grandiose millennia long cycle of re-appropriation of the species to itself.
b) Ancient-Classical Variant - Rome
The work then came to study the evolution in Rome of the ancient-classical variant. The rapporteur has drawn attention, rather than on the millennial Roman history, to the fundamental features that the slavery production mode has taken in its apogee and collapse.
Private property, originated by the dissolution of the original community, initially did not concern the main production means of pre-capitalist forms, land, but movable property, goods.
Caused by the original different geophysical conditions, the antique-classical variant, unlike the Asian "immobilism", already at its beginnings is characterized by a strong dynamism; an intrinsic tension characterized by the constant attempt of private property to prevail over collective property. The social structure becomes twofold: on the one hand community members are workers-owners, on the other hand their mutual relationships are determined by being members of a community whose existence is based on the collective property of the land. With separation from the organic community, the parcel becomes private individual property while the remaining land remains collective property in the public domain.
Property contains its own negation, non-property, which will be generalized in capitalism by extending the concentration of wealth. The great owners gradually subdue parcel workers, and seize the State to use it as a weapon in defence of their particular class interests.
In order not to become a slave, the ruined citizen has to come under the protection of a rich man, who mediates his belonging to the community; citizenship evolves towards a patronage relationship, introducing the tertiary form.
This implies an impetuous development of the monetary economy, a domestic market and the beginning of an international market. For the producer, stripped-down of land and indebted, the depths open of slavery for debts.
At the conclusion of the report, once again is proved the classical Marxist thesis that seeks the causes of wars in the economic substrate; Roman wars cease to be caused by clashes among communities-tribe for demographic problems, and begin to become conquest endeavours for the extension of superior productive relations to backward peoples, thus subduing in a more stable way not only foreign peoples but even plebeians at home, in a progressive expropriation process.
Consequently also the figure of the fighter changes drastically; the introduction of the soldier’s pay (around 403 BC) makes the service a commodity. In classical modes of production, war is the biggest business for the ruling class: thanks to expropriations, it saves the cost of buying land; the effects of the confiscation of huge territories of many communities of Central Italy and their transformation into ager publicus, largely left to the free occupation by the richest among the Romans, were the reason of the most important economic and social problems occurred in the II century BC
After the attempted escape of the king, in June 1791, Robespierre and most revolutionaries, until then advocates of a constitutional monarchy, become openly republican.
Being a follower of Rousseau and of the Law of Nature does not make of Robespierre a utopian unable to see reality: when the court, the constitutional monarchists of Lafayette and the republicans of Brissot pronounce for the war against the enemies of France, he argues, with scarce success, that the war is in reality a means to bring back the king on the throne, given the situation of the moment, and in particular the fact that the army of the new France was led by monarchist and treacherous generals. He is therefore for peace.
His position on the war somehow recalls that of Lenin on the 1918 peace of Brest-Litovsk, a peace our Vladimir achieved after serious difficulties, also within the party itself. What the two great revolutionaries have in common is the consciousness that the salvation of the revolution, which is struggle between classes, comes before anything else, no matter how hard, difficult and humiliating the peace conditions may be: there is no room for fanatical revolutionary enthusiasms, or for hurt pride.
The right to property is for robespierrists a “right of nature”, which must however take also into account the other “natural rights”, starting with that to existence. If property contrasts with freedom and existence of citizens the law can and must regulate and limit it. A concept that, although fully capitalist, is certainly distant from the full and undisputed bourgeois property that, as a God, sit on the throne built for it by the Napoleonic Code.
Montesquieu was admired by Jacobins as he was seen as a supporter of the Republic and of republican virtues, but his conception of division of powers was not accepted. In another speech of May 1793 Robespierre expresses himself decidedly against the balance of powers and on the model England represented: “It is a sort of monstrous government, where the ghost of freedom annihilates freedom itself, where law sanctifies despotism, where the rights of the people are the object of ordinary trade”.
On July 27 he is elected in the Committee of Public Safety. From a report to the December Convention: "The theory of the revolutionary government is new as the revolution that gave birth to it (...) The purpose of the constitutional government is to preserve the Republic: while that of the revolutionary government is to found it (...) The latter is subjected to less uniform and less rigorous rules, because the circumstances in which it operates are stormy and mobile."
In a similar speech of February 1794: "Some have said that terror is the power of despotic government. So does your terror resemble despotism? Yes, but as the sword that shines in the hands of the heroes of freedom resembles that of the armies of tyranny. "
The Committee of Public Safety has certainly exerted the function of revolutionary dictatorship, even though it was preferably mentioned as revolutionary government. But the Convention remained the holder of legitimate power, and had to be conquered by the strength of the arguments, which Robespierre always did, also with the Committee of Public Safety.
The difference with Cromwell in England in the previous century is that the latter had the army command and therefore the real power in his hands. The Committee of Public Safety directs the State and the republican armies, and commands the Revolutionary Tribunal, but is re-elected every month by the Convention. We can talk about revolutionary dictatorship, but only partially.
To speak of dictatorship of Robespierre, as did the Thermidorians and then the anti-Robespierrist historians, is even less sustainable. The Committee was a collective steering organ. Robespierre was not president, he had not chosen the other members and had been the last to join it: his pre-eminent position was due solely to his prestige, that is to the rightness of his theses.
The necessity of a revolutionary government occurred to Robespierre in July 1793 when the armies of the monarchist coalition took over Mainz and Valenciennes, when Girondins and Monarchists roused the departments and delivered Toulon to the British.
He sought to curb the excesses of Terror and save the sincere republicans who had been hit, criticized and recalled several terrorists on mission such as Carrier in Nantes and Fouché in Lyon, become famous for their ferocity, often directed at revolutionaries. It was these members of Terror, along with some members of the Committee of Public Safety and the Committee of General Security, the architects of Thermidor with the consequent death sentence of Robespierre, Saint-Just and other 90 Jacobins.
Robespierre was never of communist ideas. It is with Babeuf and Buonarroti that the ideas of "justice" of enlightenment and Jacobinism will come to the extreme and rational consequences in the heat of the revolution, finally attaining communism.
A Jacobin and Robespierre’s supporter to the end was Louis Antoine Leon De Saint-Just. On November 13, 1792, he spoke to the Convention to demand the execution of the king as a public enemy. In a speech to the same month’s convention, it supported freedom of trade. In February 1793 he supported the need to take the army from the control of the executive, in favour of the Convention, which expressed popular sovereignty.
From the "Report on Incarcerated Persons" of February 26, 1794, we read: "There are complaints of revolutionary measures! (...) In fact, the succession of events leads us perhaps to results we did not expect (...) Those who make half-revolutions only dig their grave. "
From an April report: "A revolution like ours is not a process, but a thunder on all perverts. It is no longer a matter of giving lessons to them: they must be repressed and destroyed. " The organization of Terror is centralized and the Revolutionary Courts of the departments suppressed to the advantage of that of Paris.
If it is true that only Marat openly theorized the revolutionary dictatorship, it is undeniable that also Robespierre, Saint-Just and the other Jacobins conceived and above all practiced it. They saw it rising under their very eyes before even understanding it. Their theorization could only be partial and contradictory, since the subject of this dictatorship, that is, the revolutionary party, did not exist yet. The Jacobin club had only some of the aspects of a modern party, but surely we can not define it as such.
The limits of Jacobin ideology were the limits of the bourgeois class, of economic development, of the relations of production and of class relations in France and in the world of the time.
Russian historian Evgheni V. Tarlé in "Germinal and Prairial" writes: "In the Antoine and Marceau suburbs, in the Temple district, and in Rue Mouffetard there were masses ready for decisive revolutionary actions. But these leaders and these masses did not know each other, did not understand each other and did not meet. "
The hunger and famine afflicting the urban plebs were tremendous, and the countryside was in no better conditions. On the 12th Germinal common people went to the Convention to ask for "Bread, restoration of the Constitution of 1793 and release of the patriots arrested on the 9th Thermidor". The same evening arrests and deportations began, even more than after the attempted uprising of 1st Prairial. While the Montagnards were arrested, "bad citizens", i.e., non-owners, were disarmed, and "good citizens" were armed, that is, the rich. The Golden Youth, sort of death squads at the service of counter-revolution, went hunting for Jacobins and workers.
Jullian, head of the Golden Youth, will later say that if the insurgents had better leaders and if they had immediately arrested the members of the committees, "the government would be dispersed and Terror restored." Levasseur de la Sarthe, member of the Convention, the 1st Prairial was in prison. In his memoirs he writes that the insurgents complained of insufficient armament and inexperience of the leaders, and speaks of rebellion of the working class against the bourgeois aristocracy. He believed in the existence of an embryonic organization that with the "dictatorship of some energetic patriots" would restore the 1793 Constitution.
Tarlé writes: "A battalion of one of the sections of the Antoine suburb approaches the the Convention with cannons; a battalion of the bourgeois section of the Champs Elisées takes a stand in front of it in defence of the Convention (...) Never before, during the entire course of the revolution, had they faced each other militarily (…) owners and non owners, bourgeoisie and plebeians, and never was that acknowledged so clearly and unequivocally by witnesses and protagonists. "
In Germinal and Prairial the Parisian common people, unlike the days of 1789, 1792 and 1793, did not have any allies among the middle bourgeoisie and very few among the small bourgeoisie.
François-Noël Babeuf in 1786 is for land exploitation in collective management. We are still in utopian communism, but to which he already reproaches to leave "a void as concerns the means". A follower of Rousseau, Babeuf does not accepthis pessimism and believes in progress, like the encyclopaedists, thinking that dissemination of knowledge can lead to the emancipation of mankind. Unlike Rousseau, he declares himself a materialist and atheist, and in Year 2 he refuses the worship of the Supreme Being. He declares himself an advocate of the Agrarian Law, that is, of division and distribution of land.
In 1791 he criticizes Robespierre for considering political equality sufficient: the differences between the two, perceived as mild by the same protagonists, were due to class divergences.
After the 9th Thermidor Babeuf founds "Le Tribun du Peuple". In the first writings, he pronounces against the dictatorship of Robespierre because the committees had destroyed the power of the Parisian Sections, harshly repressing the Sans-culottes.
In December 1794, Babeuf seems to share the Sans-culottes policy: to seek the support of the Members of the Convention and the spontaneous rebellion of the proletarian masses.
Babeuf’s communism was based on a claim of the right of nature: we can not expect from him the concept of historical necessity in establishing new relations in production and among social classes.
In February 1796 Babeuf in a letter firmly defends Robespierre, Saint-Just, and the revolutionary dictatorship exercised by the Committee of Public Safety: "I do not want to discuss whether Hébert and Chaumette were innocent (...) The salvation of 25 million men is not to be bartered with respect towards some equivocal individual (...) Scoundrels, or imbeciles, or presumptuous and ambitious, is the same, so much the worse for them. "
On October 26, 1795, power in France was taken over by the Directory. In December, the Panthéon Club was founded by anti-Thermidorian republicans, including Babeuf. On February 24, 1796, the Directorate decreed the dissolution of the Panthéon Club, performed by the young general Bonaparte, formerly Jacobin and robespierrist. The revolutionaries are imprisoned.
After the dissolution of the Panthéon Club, heavily influenced by the egalitarians, these think it is time to act and to create a clandestine insurgency organization whose purpose is the Constitution of 1793 first, and communism as the ultimate goal.
The historian Dommanget writes: "All small committees scattered over the capital (...) had to disappear, to make room for a single centralized structure. It was Babeuf and his companions who had to persuade the Democrats of the need for such a form of grouping. " On the 10th Germinal is set up this "Public Secret Executive Secretariat of Public Safety". The historian Mazauric writes: "The establishment of the" Secret Insurrectional Directory "(...) was in fact the first appearance in the history of an organized and disciplined party."
This party in centralizing its directing body was inspired by the "dictator" depicted by Marat, as well as by the experience of the Committee of Public Safety of Robespierre and Saint-Just, and in attempting to influence the Sans-culotte plebs resumed the recent tradition of the sections.
The novelty is that this party, in addition to leading the insurrection, was preparing to undertake a provisional revolutionary dictatorship, necessary for the purpose of the coercion and education of the masses, a dictatorship of which it was not possible to establish the duration beforehand and which would finally lead to the founding of the communist society.
Levasseur and others realized the necessity of having a leadership centre for the revolution, and attributed the defeat to the absence of such organ. All this led, the following year, to the “Conspiracy of the Equals called of Babeuf”. In seven years, from 1789 to 1796, there was the passage from Rousseau to the first revolutionary communist party in history.
The report dealt with the years leading up to the First World War, and then the war itself, which for the USA was relatively short. This saw the completion of the process already initiated during Wilson’s first administration. The country was preparing for war quite openly. The North American bourgeoisie was not going to pass up the opportunity to demonstrate to the world who would be in control in the decades to follow, to flaunt its powerful productive capacity, to do a roaring trade in military commissions, or to settle a few accounts that it had postponed with the working class.
The creation of the Department of Labor, with the support of an ex-union bigwig, highlighted the line to be pursued by the President: centralized control of social conflicts, using the craft unions and the AFL, by now harnessed to the bourgeoisie and serving as its transmission belt to the working class. Some concessions were granted in exchange for acquiescence to the war effort, (the main one being the extension of the eight-hour working day), but at the same time union organizations that did not submit to arbitration, or which undertook pacifist propaganda, were persecuted. The labor unions of the AFL became increasingly integrated within the State apparatus, and met with its representatives at the top of various agencies set up to coordinate the war effort. In doing so they lost credit among the workers, while struggles intensified The State returned the favor, prosecuting the IWW and whatever struggle broke out outside the rules that had been provided for centrally, for example by rejecting arbitrators’ decisions.
The unions that had sold out did not always manage to control the class; in these cases, rather than deploying the forces of repression, something was occasionally conceded to the strikers, given the basic requirement for labor to meet the demands of the war effort. Some of the more forward-thinking companies worked towards the creation of company unions. This idea was taken up by the State, which favored the birth of the shop committees even in small firms, including those free from any kind of trade union presence (whether or not they had sold out) for the settlement of disputes; representatives of the bosses also participated in these, in a spirit that would, a few years later, assume the name “corporatism”.
Meanwhile there was plenty of work but too few workers: immigration had almost stopped during the war, and the working class had more power to defend itself from the bosses’ attacks. Factories recruited women and above all a large internal migration took place, of black workers from the South, often ruined farmers. At the same time, immigrants from Europe were no longer available to undercut wages, or even as blacklegs, they had become more combative and at the center of the struggles in the large industrial districts.
At the same time, especially from the end of 1917, persecution of socialists and the IWW intensified, whether through laws that also suppressed freedom of expression and demonized anyone considered unpatriotic, the Espionage Act, the Criminal Syndicalism Act, or with violence directly financed by the capitalists.
With the war a cycle in American working class history came to its conclusion. The class would struggle in the difficult post-war years with blunted weapons, with unions tied to bourgeois power, with combative organizations reduced to minimum objectives, and above all without having managed to establish a genuine Marxist party.
At every meeting the comrades who follow the conflicts among imperialisms give a synthetic account on the current military events. We can then get the general sense of the development of operations, represented on maps of war theatres, and listen to their repercussions on the behaviour of parties and classes of local societies.
A continuous attention is given to the situation in the Middle East, today to the Syrian-Iraqi region, devastated by the war. This, that made hundreds of thousands of victims, mostly civilians, and of evacuees, destroyed infrastructures and razed to the ground ancient and modern cities, caused endless chaos, without reason, without solution.
Behind these appearances is hiding the direction of imperialisms that, in defending their interests, to widen their spheres of influence, strangled by the economic crisis, are ready to sacrifice the lives of entire populations.
The design, provided there is a design behind the pressing economic need for warfare, seems to be to break the State units established after the First World War by Anglo-French imperialism, countries that had succeeded in achieving a certain degree of economic development and political autonomy, to create weaker, territorially limited entities, united on an ethnic or religious basis, under the imperial motto "divide and conquer".
The Syria war, which began as a confrontation between the Syrian army and some paramilitary groups, of a secular or religious matrix, who militarily opposed Assad’s regime, saw the involvement, and increasingly the pressing, since the beginning,of various regional powers: on one side, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in support of armed groups opposed to Assad’s government, on the other Iran in its defence. The civil war since the early months has turned into a clash on the Syrian territory between regional powers.
But that conflict, in an area so important from a geostrategic point of view, can not be ignored by the action of the great imperialist powers, the United States, already engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia, intervening directly in Syria in September 2015, China, as well as various European States, from France to Great Britain to Germany and Italy. But even Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Qatar did not spare their active contribution to the slaughter.
Now, in the absence of a revolutionary communist prospect, any ideological, religious, national motivation aiming at legitimizing this war has demonstrated its instrumental nature in the service of the aims of the various opposing imperialisms. Even the militia of the Islamic State, the Sunni opposition radical Islamist mirage to the oppressing West, are merely mercenary troops hired by various regional powers and fully integrated in the imperialist war.
The Kurdish militia of the Rojava, at war against the Islamic State to carve out a micro-self-determination in Syrian territory, relying on the momentary and self-absorbed support of the United States and Russia, participate in one of the fronts of a counterrevolutionary war in all its aspects, whose consequences will only be tragic for the inhabitants of the area.
The whole Middle East has always been one of the first countries in the world for armaments spending; in recent years there have been further leaps in the purchase of the most sophisticated weapon systems for the benefit of the major exporters, the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain, China, Italy; is it a coincidence that the same are all more or less militarily involved in the region?
Despite the cease-fire agreements signed in Geneva, the war continues and promises to extend further.
The comrade tried to focus on the complex evolution of the clash. A series of maps were shown: the first, of March 2015, a few months before the Russian intervention, showed the main forces that at that time contended for the territory, which are divided into four groups: rebels, loyalists, Kurds, foreign forces. After some offensives, ending with poor results, the government underwent a series of heavy defeats.
The second map showed the situation on various fronts as of June 20, 2015. In mid-May, Isis managed to conquer the city of Palmyra; it also kept control of a large portion of territory at the border with Turkey. The Kurds with the support of US aviation had been able to unite the two regions under their control east of the Euphrates at the expense of Isis, and their advance threatened directly Raqqa, the capital of the Caliphate. Aleppo, the second city of Syria after Damascus, was object of fighting between government forces and rebels.
By the end of September, Russia decided to intervene directly at the request of the Syrian regime. The third map showed the situation in December 2015, after three months of Moscow’s intervention. To the west, the Kurds of JPG attacked the Isis heading for Manbij from the south, crossing the Euphrates, with the support of the US-led western coalition aviation. In the region south of Aleppo government troops were on the offensive; in the northwestern area, the Kurds led an offensive against anti-government rebels with the support of Russian aviation.
The comrade then gave a synthetic picture of the forces in the field before the invasion of northern Syria by the Turkish Army, which began in late August.
Damascus central government forces loyal to the Bashar al-Assad regime consist of Syrian regular units, backed by Hezbollah’s Lebanese Shiite militias, Iranian military advisers and the Russian armed forces. They controlled about a third of the country, in particular the western region near the coast, the north, and the border with Lebanon to the south.
The Russian forces are mainly located within the two historic Tartus and Latakia military bases, an aircraft component hosted at Bassel al-Assad airport. Armored infantry and Russian artillery units are also located in Damascus, Hama and Homs.
The northern border from the eastern border with Turkey and Iraq to the Mediterranean was in fact completely under the control of Syrian Kurdish militias, with the exception of the province of Aleppo under the Islamic State.
The Islamic State presents itself as a force distributed in the central and eastern regions of the country, controlling the road that from Aleppo reaches the Iraqi border and continues to Mosul. The area between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor is the heart of Syria’s oil production system, where the Islamic State has managed to maintain some deposits working, subsequently selling oil through a secret land transport network.
Aleppo is also a strategic stronghold for the Islamic State, making it the only access to the north through Turkey for supplies and traffic managed by ISIS.
The United States is engaged in the search for a mediation that separates Jabhat al-Nusra’s interests from those of Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, among Al-Qaida’s jihadist forces, in order to incorporate the latter two among the "moderate" opposition forces, "interlocutors" of the Western international community.
After the coup attempt in mid-July 2016, Ankara’s government sought to re-align with Russia. It offered cessation of support for the rebels and the retention of Assad in power. In return, it got the green light to invading Syria in a strip of about twenty kilometers. At the end of August, the Turkish Army attacked without encountering resistance. Turkey ordered the Kurdish militia to abandon the territories east of the Euphrates as the Turkish-supported rebels advanced south and collided with the Kurdish forces.
Turkey’s priority therefore seems to have gone from deposing Assad to ward off the birth of a Kurdish autonomous entity.
The comrade finally pointed out that in mid-August a high-level Chinese military delegation had been received in Damascus, thus sanctioning a collaboration between the two States and the two armies.
Since the revolutionary failure in Germany in the years 1919-1923 was the decisive factor behind the defeat of the entire Western proletariat and ended the possibility of extending the revolution from Russia to Europe, which was to be followed by a titanic victory of communism around the world, the party felt it was necessary to resume its study of the events and to draw the right lessons, from a partly negative experience, in such grave and difficult times. Such lessons will be an indispensable and sure guide for tomorrow’s revolutionaries.
The comrades who are in charge of this task have a solid basis in the many works of the party dedicated to the topic, even though we always consider them semi-finished. The intention is, on the one hand, to reiterate the conclusions reached by the party about the factors that led to the defeat, and on the other to deepen its particularly crucial aspects.
It was considered necessary first to describe how the modern bourgeois German State developed. Germany took an unusual path towards becoming one of the world’s top industrial powers, with the formation of a modern, well-organized working class. After 1848-9 the bourgeoisie, fearful of being overwhelmed by the revolutionary wave, renounced its goals. Then, in the period 1862-1871, the Prussian army and the artful politics of Bismarck created the national unitary State, the German Second Empire, with the bourgeoisie protected by the imperial bureaucracy and the Junker military caste. Under these conditions, the claim of Social Democrats and Independents in 1918 to create a bourgeois republic assumed a completely reactionary nature, unlike in Russia in February 1917.
The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) grew rapidly in the fertile conditions of industrialization under the Second Empire and was properly considered the most important party within the Second International.
The failed revolution in Germany in the years 1919-1923 must above all be attributed to the counter-revolutionary character and function of the huge social-democratic movement, which was quite apparent since the vote of war credits of 1914. Two more factors should be added.
First of these was the absence until January 1919 of the Communist Party, due to the Spartacus League’s hesitation in detaching itself first from the SPD and then from the USPD (Independent SPD), in the mistaken attempt not to lose influence on the German proletariat and its large organizations, which remained under the control of social democracy.
Second, there was the serious programmatic error of believing that the working masses could rise up spontaneously without the need for party leadership. In the absence of the party and its clear political direction, the proletariat, left to the spontaneity of its anger, will inevitably be doomed to defeat and repression.
It is true that the split and the foundation of a new party cannot be decided and realized at any random moment, but it is equally true that the historical maturity that chooses the party’s programme and demands the split is not due to the contingent level of consciousness defused in the masses. Either the party is in a position to read the lesson of historical events and to draw from this the correct tactic, anticipating for itself and for the masses the future requirements of the struggle, or any spontaneous movement, however vast and well-disposed, is condemned to failure.
In the years that followed tactical errors also contributed to the defeat, which seemed to transfer from those of the KPD to those of the Communist International, finally resulting in the degeneration of our worldwide movement. The KPD, always tied in some way to social democracy, remained convinced of the possibility of a peaceful and gradual transition to socialism and, while ready to call for strikes, was not ready to call for armed insurrection; it slipped, under the direction of the International, into the crazy tactical error of the United Front between parties and the subsequent error of the Workers’ Government.
The extreme wings of the left are also a subject of the party’s study: drawing the negative lessons from the KAPD and the Unions, taken to extremes by Pannekoek and Gorter, is necessary for the complete renewal of revolutionary Marxism, the analysis and critique of immediatism, spontaneism, workerism, factoryism and councilism, which were cause and effect of the weakness of the proletariat in Germany.
Thus, recalling our unfinished work, and also historical sources from the bourgeoisie and our adversaries, we will show how the position of the Italian Communist Left, immediately raised within the Third International against its erroneous tactics, with its most extreme example in Germany but repeated in situations elsewhere including in Italy – was confirmed by the events that followed. This confirmation is not historicist in intent, but is rather intended to point out false paths that must be avoided by tomorrow’s revolutionaries.
The report has already been published in n. 6 of “The Communist Party“ as “The Decline of the United Kingdom, the End of its Empire in a European Context”.
We started the exposition of our study on the Hungarian proletarian revolution of 1919. We began by listing the chapters: Introduction, Brief History of Hungary of the Period, The Collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, The Aster Revolution and the Partition of Hungary, the Soviet Republic, Betrayal by the HSDP, The Counter-revolution, and Causes of the Failure of the Hungarian Revolution.
The speaker introduced the discussion with our appeal appearing in Il Soviet of August 5, 1919, which proclaimed: “The bloody lesson of Hungary has taught the entire world proletariat that there can exist no coalition, no type of compromise with socialists so inclined to treason. The corruptable layer of opportunist leaders must be removed. New men must lead the movement. These will emerge from the working class. Because it is the latter, not its adversaries, who are destined for victory. Soviet Hungary has fallen. Long live Soviet Hungary! Long live the Hungarian Communist Party! Long live the workers’ revolution across the entire world! Long live communism!"
We then began by briefly describing what were the economic and social conditions of the Hungarians, with a proletariat, in large measure agricultural, compelled by the monarchy to live in a state of extreme poverty and slavery in the service of the landowners: aristocrats, nobles and priests, the latter possessing a good part of the land under cultivation. The ethnic minorities – Slovaks, Serbs, Germans, Ruthenians, Romanians – who comprised roughly half of the population, were subjected to an even greater oppression.
In 1914 only 8% of the 20 million Hungarians had the right to vote; only 72% of children attended school, and of these more than 70% did not complete elementary education. The schools were mainly private and managed by the church: 80% of elementary schools and 65% of middle and higher schools.
Industry was still under-developed but, thanks to major investment by the State and foreign capital, there was a significant increase in production over the course of a few years, even reaching 500% in some sectors. This development drew agricultural workers to the cities where they found higher wages. The number working in agriculture fell from 80% to 64.5% in the years 1870-1910, while the industrial proletariat more than doubled from 11.5% to 23.6%. On the eve of war industry was contributing 28% to national income, compared with 65% by agriculture.
speaker then described the development of the workers’ movement and
the trade unions. These first appeared as mutual aid societies, in
the framework of the law of 1872, amended in 1884, which viewed
incitement to strikes as a crime and severely restricted the
recognition of workers’ associations. This formally legal structure
clearly served to cover the two purposes for which subscriptions were
collected from members: supporting the factory movements and
Hungarian Social Democratic Party (HSDP).
A Hungarian delegate, Kàroly Farkas, was present at the Congress of the International that took place at The Hague in 1872. He voted with the Marxist majority against the followers of Bakunin.
The HSDP was founded in 1890. It at once embraced an alliance with the trade unions, forced as they were by the repressive laws into clandestine activity.
From 1891 numerous uprisings burst out because of the miserable conditions under which proletarians lived in the country, peaking between 1896 and 1897. There were also many strikes in Budapest, met with bloody State repression and the deportation of some trade union leaders in the countryside, where they helped to organize the agitation by the rural proletariat.
The Hungarian government always came down on the proletariat with a heavy hand, imprisoning the members of its young organizations and suppressing its newspapers. The development of the workers’ movement was therefore difficult and slow. At the end of the 19th century members of the various trade unions were a mere 3% of the entire industrial working class; by 1913 they totaled 110,000, representing 10 to 15% of the industrial labor force in employment.
In 1905, on the back of agrarian uprisings, three agrarian socialists were unexpectedly elected to parliament: Vòrkonyi, Mezöfi e Andios Achin. Achin was assassinated almost immediately afterwards. The HSDP, by contrast, did not succeed in getting a single delegate elected until 1914.
The speaker went on to cover a number of points, describing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the army’s defeats at the fronts; the complex events that followed the first global slaughter, with the partition of conquered territories between the victorious imperialisms; and the push towards independence of the numerous nationalities that formed the old Empire. The timid revolutionary moves of the bourgeoisie were then examined, but above all those of the urban proletariat and rural workers, brought to the point of exhaustion and starvation by the years of war and shortages. We then focused attention on the final period of the war and in particular on October 1918 and the armistice meetings at Villa Giusti, which signaled the end of the Empire.