By Kevin Ovenden
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1955

Birth and development of a powerful force

This article is over 17 years, 2 months old
In the first part of a new series we look at the ideas of Marx and Engels
Issue 1955
Part of a new working class
Part of a new working class

In 1879 Karl Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels summed up their politics thus:

“For almost 40 years we have stressed the class struggle as the immediate driving power of history, and in particular the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution.”

In the course of those four decades the proletariat (working class) had changed radically — in its distribution through different industries, in ethnic and national composition, in conditions of life, and in organisation.

The reason was the dynamism of capitalism itself. Marx and Engels had noted in 1848 how a distinguishing feature of capitalism was that it constantly “revolutionised” production.

Today it is all too common for journalists and academics to say that the huge restructuring of the economy over the last 40 years has led to the disappearance of the working class and politics based on it.

But what is seen as the stereotypical traditional working class — the factory shop stewards committee, the militant miner — was a world away from the working class Marx was writing about.

The heart of the industrial revolution, which began in the 18th century, was the textile industry. The Lancashire cotton towns drew in workers from rural areas. Huge numbers of Irish peasants were driven off the land and into English factories.

By the middle of the 19th century between a fifth and a third of the populations of Liverpool and Manchester were immigrants from Ireland. The dominant influence on them was the Catholic church.

There was huge variation in traditions, culture, size of workplace and between one locality and another, among the working class.

No sooner had the capitalists managed to shoehorn this new class into factories than the structure of industry began to change.

The share of exports of cotton fell from about 50 percent in 1830 to 35 percent in 1870.

There was a rapid expansion in the export of heavy industrial goods from under 10 percent to over 25 percent. By 1880 there were 500,000 coal miners in Britain, reaching 1.2 million by 1914.

It was in this later period that the image of the traditional industrial worker took shape.

But even at its peak manufacturing accounted for no more than half the working class. Throughout the 19th century agriculture remained the single biggest employer.

Hundreds of thousands of workers, mainly women, were employed in domestic service or in insecure trades, for example working as street vendors or tailoring. Throughout the 19th century most of the working class remained unorganised.

Trade union, political and cultural organisation, and even the idea of sharing a common working class interest, lagged behind the creation of new groups of workers.

The struggles that created organisation and the sense of a common interest were not gradual unionisation drives, but big explosions of highly political confrontation.

The 1830s saw a series of bitter, localised struggles as workers attempted to form unions in the face of a repressive state.

These isolated struggles crystallised around a political question — the right to vote — and gave birth to the first mass working class movement, the Chartists.

The defeat of the Chartists led to a period of reaction. The working class Marx observed in Britain in the 1850s looked very different to his description of it as the “gravedigger of capitalism”.

Those unions that did exist were conservative and organised only a small number of skilled workers. The next wave of radicalism did not come from them — but it did infect them.

It came from the government’s support for the slave-owning South in the American civil war of the 1860s.

Agitation against support for the South spread through working class areas, including Lancashire, where textile workers rejected the argument that a victory for the slave owners would bring job security by ensuring a cheap supply of raw cotton.

It was out of this agitation that Marx was able to help form the International Working Men’s Association in 1864.

Two decades later individuals influenced by its ideas played a crucial role in “New Unionism”, the explosion of militancy among unskilled workers. They included dockers, the casualised “precarious” workers of the day.

This process of the formation of new groups of workers, socialist agitation, and then sudden eruptions of struggle continued into the 20th century.


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