Tuesday, 13 August 2019


The bourgeoisie disown their revolutionary past. At best they do so tacitly, by blurring the class nature of historical events. Some years ago, I was sitting in the sauna at the local sports centre talking to the father of my next door neighbour. He was an old welsh miner, who had moved to North Staffordshire to work in the local pits. He'd been watching Cromwell that had been on the TV the day before. “He was one of ours, Arthur, wasn't he?” “Well, not so much,” I replied hesitantly. The truth is that, only in a very limited sense was Cromwell “one of ours”. But, the bourgeoisie, now well entrenched in power for nearly 200 years, have done a very good job at presenting all past revolts against established order as being the work of dangerous “revolutionaries”, who by implication are thereby associated with socialism. 

Cromwell, of course, was not a socialist. He was a prosperous capitalist farmer, at a time when capitalist production, which had begun, on a very small scale, in the towns and cities in the 15th century, had gradually spread into an increasing number of spheres of production, before taking root in agriculture. The English Civil War was not, in any sense, a working-class rebellion. Although capitalist production by the middle of the 17th century, had expanded, it was still on a very small scale, and the working-class represented, perhaps, at most 10% of the population. In fact, according to Engels, he and Marx had made the mistake, in 1848, of thinking that the bourgeois revolutions that swept across Europe, in that year, could flow over into proletarian revolutions, because, at that time, it was only in England that any sizeable working-class existed. 

What did exist at the time of the Civil War, was a sizeable middle class of merchants, based in the towns, whose wealth expanded as trade grew, especially as the globe was opened up by merchant explorers, often sponsored by the landed aristocracy, which sought to extend its own land ownership and rents, by acquiring colonies overseas. It was often the same landed aristocracy that owned large banks and financial institutions that financed this growing trade, and thereby appropriated large revenues from interest. The Civil War was a revolution fought by these bourgeois and mercantilist elements that sought to extend their political power as against the Crown, which saw them and their profits, interest and rents as merely a convenient source of revenues which it could tax to finance its own adventures. 

Cromwell, and those that stood behind him, had no interest in obtaining even the vote for the tiny working-class that existed at the time, nor for the mass of small peasants that made up the majority of the population. On the contrary, Cromwell ensured that those such as the Levellers and Diggers who sought more widespread political freedoms, were marginalised and suppressed. Cromwell is only one of ours in the sense that he was the inevitable opponent of what went before. He was a bourgeois revolutionary against the established rule of the landlord class. 

The way Napoleon Bonaparte is presented is similar. In the popular mind, the dictator Bonaparte, is easily associated with the dictator Stalin, or Mao. And, as the bourgeois apologists have also attempted to present Communism and Fascism as twins, so too the association with Hitler, or Mussolini is not too much of a stretch to achieve. The common factor in all of this is the idea that the rebellion against the establishment is the action of dangerous revolutionary elites, who achieve their aims by violent revolutions, and having done so, then consolidate their own position via authoritarian means. Revolutions devour their children. 

But, of course, in the case of the Great French Revolution, far more than in the case of the English Civil War, it is quite clear that it was a bourgeois revolution. The ideas upon which it was undertaken, were bourgeois ideas, of individual liberty, including as Marx often repeated in respect of the Liberal principles advocated by Bentham, that one great freedom the freedom of trade. 

This Friday 16th August, marks the 20th. Anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre, in Manchester. On that day, 200 years ago, around 60,000 people had gathered in St. Peter's Fields in Manchester to demand political reforms, including reforms to the franchise, reforms to the electoral boundaries, and the scrapping of the so called “rotten boroughs”, as well as other social reforms. I recently watched the new film released “Peterloo”, which depicts the events in the run up to the massacre. Its well worth a viewing. 

But, again, the narrative being created around the events is misleading. The politics behind the rally that day in Manchester were not socialist politics. They were the politics of bourgeois radicalism. The main speaker on the day, Henry 'Orator' Hunt, was not a socialist, but a bourgeois radical. He was himself, like Cromwell, actually a prosperous capitalist farmer. Moreover, it has to be born in mind that the working-class, still constituted a minority of the population in 1819. Workers like the hand-loom weavers, who were suffering particular misery at the time, were actually still independent artisan producers, much like the independent peasant producers in the countryside. They operated out of their own homes, using their own means of production. The reason they suffered such hardship was that with the introduction, on a much wider scale, of steam engines, which meant that textile production could be moved into the towns and cities, the hand loom weavers could not compete with the introduction of power looms into large capitalist owned factories. Indeed, it was the introduction of such machines in the years leading up to Peterloo that led to the Luddites activities in machine breaking. 

But, as Marx writes in the Communist Manifesto, 

“They direct their attacks not against the bourgeois conditions of production, but against the instruments of production themselves; they destroy imported wares that compete with their labour, they smash to pieces machinery, they set factories ablaze, they seek to restore by force the vanished status of the workman of the Middle Ages.” 

In 1819, only around 220,000 people (all men) had the right to vote in England, constituting less than 3% of the population. Those denied the vote included a majority also of the bourgeoisie, whose wealth and power had been growing alongside the growth of capitalist production. Even, where the urban bourgeoisie did have the vote, it was usually ineffective, because the electoral boundaries were drawn in such a way that urban areas, where the bourgeoisie was concentrated, had little parliamentary representation, whereas some rural areas with virtually no population elected two MP's. 

"Old Sarum in Wiltshire, with one voter, elected two MPs,[1] as did Dunwich in Suffolk, which by the early 19th century had almost completely disappeared into the sea.[2] The major urban centres of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Blackburn, Rochdale, Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham and Stockport, with a combined population of almost one million, were represented by either the two county MPs for Lancashire, or the two for Cheshire in the case of Stockport.” 


The bourgeoisie, therefore, as with the Great French Revolution, were the driving force behind the demands for political reform, as they sought to translate their now economic and social dominance into political dominance. It was the bourgeoisie whose ideas were behind the demands raised at Peterloo, just as it was the bourgeoisie, whose demands for political reform led to the 1832 Reform Act. In the same way, that the French bourgeoisie drew in the masses of peasants behind them in 1789, so too the English bourgeoisie drew behind them the urban masses in demanding bourgeois political reforms. As Marx puts it in The Communist Manifesto, 

“At this stage, the labourers still form an incoherent mass scattered over the whole country, and broken up by their mutual competition. If anywhere they unite to form more compact bodies, this is not yet the consequence of their own active union, but of the union of the bourgeoisie, which class, in order to attain its own political ends, is compelled to set the whole proletariat in motion, and is moreover yet, for a time, able to do so. At this stage, therefore, the proletarians do not fight their enemies, but the enemies of their enemies, the remnants of absolute monarchy, the landowners, the non-industrial bourgeois, the petty bourgeois. Thus, the whole historical movement is concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie; every victory so obtained is a victory for the bourgeoisie.” 

In the same way that the workers actions such as that of the Luddites, at this time, looks backwards, so too does that of some of those that advocate in support of the workers as against capital. One of the most eloquent writers of the time was William Cobbett, but Cobbett's ire at the conditions of the workers in the factory towns led him, like Sismondi, to hanker after a supposed more benevolent time for the workers, when they toiled independently in a rural idyll. Such were the reactionary socialist pipe dreams. 

In the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the demand for commodities such as clothes, rose significantly, and groups of independent labourers, like the hand-loom weavers did well. But, when the wars ended in 1815, that also meant that in addition to that demand falling, large numbers of soldiers returned, now looking for employment. At the same time, during the wars, the price of corn was high, as import from the continent could not occur. After 1815, European food could be imported into Britain, which caused agricultural prices to drop. That gave a further impetus for agricultural labour that had become unemployed to move to the towns. The landlords, who had also suffered as food prices dropped, as it caused them to lose rents, used their political power in parliament to bring in the Corn Laws, a series of tariffs on imported food, which acted to once more raise agricultural prices. 

That meant that the industrial bourgeoisie had to pay higher wages to their workers to cover the cost of their food. This fact, was one reason that Ricardo saw the cause of the law of falling profits being due to the fact that as the working-class increases in size, the cost of food required by it rises, and although the workers then never get a sufficient rise in wages to cover this increased cost, their higher money wages, nevertheless act to squeeze profits. The same idea was proposed by the workers advocate Thomas Hodgskin. As Marx describes in Capital III, it was not just the impact on wages of the Corn Laws that affected the bourgeoisie, the same tariffs affected a range of imported agricultural products, and thereby raised the cost to them of the elements of their constant capital, which then reduced their rate of profit. The industrial bourgeoisie, therefore, had a direct incentive to obtain political reform because they needed to end this continued political dominance exercised by the landed aristocracy, and to then be able to legislate to Repeal the Corn Laws

The bourgeoisie, as a whole, achieved much of its political ambitions in 1832, with the passing of the Reform Act. As Engels, describes, in 1848, the industrial capitalists achieved their second objective with the Repeal of the Corn Laws

““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.” 

(Preface to The Second German Edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England) 

Peterloo, was one event in the bourgeois political revolution in Britain, in which the bourgeoisie consolidated its political regime, but it did so only by dragging the industrial proletariat behind in a joint fight for those bourgeois political rights and freedoms. On the one hand, the Tory Party consolidated as the party of the old landed and financial oligarchy, whilst the Manchester Liberals, ideologically represented in the pages of the Manchester Guardian, which itself emerged out of the Peterloo Massacre, and the closure of its more radical predecessor, now represented the interests of large-scale industrial capital. The alliance of the industrial bourgeoisie and industrial proletariat, which represented the emergence of social democracy in place of the liberal democracy of the earlier period, was manifest in the support for the Liberals from the trades unions, who also had their own groups of sponsored Lib-Lab MP's, in parliament. 

This “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.” 


In the aftermath of Peterloo, the landed aristocracy that had feared the contagion of the French Revolution to Britain, as symbolised in Burke's Reflections on The French Revolution, was led to make concessions to the bourgeoisie, resulting in the 1832 Reform Act. The working-class, itself began to organise via the Chartists to put forward its own set of political demands. Eventually, having consolidated its own political regime, the bourgeoisie itself incorporated those demands from the workers, as it incorporated the workers themselves via social-democracy. 

As we near the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, and the events that led to the bourgeois political revolution in the years after, today, the working-class, now constituting the vast majority of society, in the developed economies, and for the first time, the largest class on the planet, we have a different set of demands that need to be fought for and won. The political revolutions of the 19th and early 20th century, won bourgeois political rights and freedoms, such as the right to vote, to assemble, to organise, to free speech and so on. Today, we need to extend that democracy to demands for industrial democracy. The socialised capital that constitutes our large businesses, is our capital, and yet control over that capital is exercised by a tiny number of shareholders – the top 0.01%. It is anathema even to bourgeois property laws that control over property should be exercised by those that do not own it. There is also around £1 trillion of workers' capital tied up in our pension funds, but we have no democratic control over that capital either. Control is instead exercised by the large banks and finance houses, who operate once more in the interests of the top 0.01% who control those institutions similarly via their share ownership. 

The focus of the working-class today should be to fight for the extension of such industrial democracy, with the same vigour that political democracy was pursued in the past. In 1848, the Frankfurt Parliament introduced the Codetermination Laws, which ensured that workers had to be elected to the Boards of German companies. After WWII, those laws were extended in Germany. In the 1970's, the Wilson Government, set up the Bullock Committee into industrial democracy that similarly proposed that Boards should comprise 50% of directors elected by the trades unions, and the EU introduced its Fifth Company Law Directive that proposed extending such codetermination laws across the EU. 

A progressive Labour government should propose a radical reform of corporate governance laws. There is no reason that shareholders should have any seats on company boards, any more than bondholders or other creditors have such privileges. The functioning capital of companies and corporations belongs to the company itself, not its shareholders or other creditors. Such companies can only rationally comprise the associated producers, the workers and managers within them, and it is they that should democratically elect the Boards of Directors, and thereby determine company policy. A Labour government that implemented such reforms would, at a stroke, remove the need to nationalise such companies, and likewise remove the objections from the Tories and Tory media that any such nationalisation would be prohibitively expensive. It would cost nothing, and the existing shareholders would continue to own their shares, and be paid a competitive rate of interest/dividend on them, now determined by the workers in the company itself. In addition, as with worker owned cooperatives, the executives of these companies would be paid according to what the workers in the company saw as being a required level of remuneration, which all experience shows would be significantly less than those executives current award to themselves.

A struggle to extend democracy on these lines would be the best commemoration we could give to those that lost their lives 200 years ago in their own struggle for political liberty.

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