Part 4 – Political Concessions?
“The French Revolution of 1848 saved the English middle class. The Socialistic pronunciamentos of the victorious French workmen frightened the small middle class of England and disorganised the narrower, but more matter-of-fact movement of the English working class. At the very moment when Chartism was bound to assert itself in its full strength, it collapsed internally before even it collapsed externally, on the 10th of April, 1848. The action of the working class was thrust into the background. The capitalist class triumphed along the whole line.
“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 capitalist 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, stockjobbers, fundholders, etc. Free Trade meant the readjustment 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 [These words belong apparently not to Bright but to his adherents. See The Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 141, p. 273.-Ed.] 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; the 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, 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!
“The manufacturing capitalists set about the realisation of this their great object with that strong common sense and that contempt for traditional principles which has ever distinguished them from their more narrow-minded compeers on the Continent. Chartism was dying out. The revival of commercial prosperity, natural after the revulsion of 1847 had spent itself, was put down altogether to the credit of Free Trade. Both these circumstances had turned the English working class, politically, into the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party’, the party led by the manufacturers. This advantage, once gained, had to be perpetuated. And the manufacturing capitalists, from the Chartist opposition, not to Free Trade, but to the transformation of Free Trade into the one vital national question, had learnt, and were learning more and more, that the middle class can never obtain full social and political power over the nation except by the help of the working class. Thus a gradual change came over the relations between both classes. The Factory Acts, once the bugbear of all manufacturers, were not only willingly submitted to, but their expansion into acts regulating almost all trades was tolerated. Trades Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more nefarious up to 1848, were now gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time. Of the legal enactments, placing the workman at a lower level or at a disadvantage with regard to the master, at least the most revolting were repealed. And, practically, that horrid People’s Charter actually became the political programme of the very manufacturers who had opposed it to the last. The Abolition of the Property Qualification and Vote by Ballot are now the law of the land. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 make a near approach to universal suffrage, at least such as it now exists in Germany; the Redistribution Bill now before Parliament creates equal electoral districts-on the whole not more unequal than those of France or Germany; payment of members, and shorter, if not actually annual Parliaments, are visibly looming in the distanceand yet there are people who say that Chartism is dead.”
Preface To The Second German Edition of “The Condition Of The Working Class."
Here, in fact, we see the key to understanding some current events. The increasing dominance since WWII of the giant, multi-national Capitalist has meant that an increasing division within Capital itself has arisen, similar to that described above by Engels. In many ways, the interests of this Big capital are best served by the traditional politics of Social Democracy, which promote those ideas of social harmony, and which at the same time creates the conditions, through State intervention of the kinds of working-class that this Capital requires. Only at times of severe crisis does this Capital turn to the more traditional bourgeois parties. Those parties, now, in fact, represent, ideologically not this Big Capital, but reflect the interests of those more backward elements, the small Capitalists, who as Engels describes, can only survive on the back of those penny-pinching devices, and extraction of absolute surplus value, that Big capital now sees as an encumbrance. Yet, in a bourgeois democracy, the achievement of political power is determined not directly by the power of Big Capital, which continues to dominate the State, but by an electorate whose ideas will be determined by a whole range of influences outside the control of that Big Capital. Hence we have the policies of right-wing, populist Government across Europe which threaten to throw the Capitalist economy into an unnecessary crisis, that is not in the interests of Big Capital, but which plays to the immediate concerns of the small capitalists, middle class, and backward sections of workers that make up the electoral support for those Governments.
Similarly, in the US, Obamas healthcare policies are themselves in that social-democratic tradition, and geared to meeting the needs of US Big Capital, which has been crippled in international competition, as a result of the massive payments it has had to make to cover the insurance and pension costs of its employees – greater, in many cases, for its retired workforce, than the actual wage bill. Small Capital in the US, for the reasons Engels sets out here has been the main bulwark of opposition to Obama's plans, precisely because, it has been able to avoid making such payments. Its smaller, less well organised workforce has been unable to negotiate the kinds of health insurance that Big capital has provided for its workers. Even some large companies, such as Wal-Mart, have refused to provide workers with cover, instead happy for their workers to rely on the existing socialised healthcare provision, and in the process provoking the ire of their larger competitors. In short Obama's healthcare proposals, particularly in their more radical earlier versions of a “Public Option”, are not at all concessions to workers, but merely a convenience for Big Capital.
Workers should be aware of this in order to avoid being conned into believing that such conveniences for Capital, are in any sense concessions won from it.
Back To Part 3