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Resisting the rule of capital

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Issue 1697


Resisting the rule of capital

HASSAN MAHAMDALLIE looks at the first protests against capitalism

“AT NIGHT the rabble were very tumultuous. The mob paraded the whole town from east to west, obliging everybody to illuminate, and breaking the windows of such as did not do it immediately. The windows of the Mansion House were demolished all to pieces.”

That description is not of a recent anti-capitalist protest. Rather it described a protest of the poor through the City of London in 1768. The protesters were supporters of John Wilkes, a rich merchant who led a popular “Radical” movement against the authority of the king and the corrupt parliament. For two nights they ruled the streets, forcing rich householders to put on a light in support of Wilkes.

Wilkes was arrested, and on the opening of parliament a massive crowd assembled in central London. The protesters were fired on and six were killed at what became known as the Massacre of St George’s Fields. A whole series of strikes followed. Seamen, port workers, coal heavers, weavers, tailors, joiners and others struck in London, and the action spread to the north of England.

From the 1760s through to the 1820s, workers expressed their anger at the way the early capitalists wrecked their lives for profit. The newly forming working class took part in riots, machine wrecking and arson, and began to organise in the early trade unions. Those who protested were always branded a “mob”, “a threat to society”, and persecuted.

JUST AS workers today feel themselves powerless before big corporations and organisations like the World Trade Organisation, workers in the 18th century fought to keep control over their lives. The development of new machinery should have meant an easier life for people. Instead it turned them into “slaves to the machine”. Karl Marx wrote that mechanisation should have been a powerful instrument for shortening the time spent at work.

Instead it became “the most unfailing means for placing every moment of the labourer’s time and that of his family at the disposal of the capitalist”. Workers began to “combine” themselves into trade unions to harness their collective power. The ruling class responded with repression.

The 1799 “Combination Acts” banned trade unionism and allowed magistrates to send “offenders” to jail without trial. This drove working class resistance underground. It was these circumstances that gave rise to the Luddite movement of 1811-12. Today right wingers attack workers who resist being thrown on the scrap heap as against “progress”, and as “Luddites”. But, like today’s workers, the original Luddites were right to fight. Luddism was a highly organised movement against starvation wages and intolerable working conditions.

The Luddites targeted employers who used mechanisation to drive wages down. The movement began in Nottinghamshire early in 1811. It took its name from the story of Ned Ludd, a boy who had smashed up his stocking frame. The bosses were terrified by the Luddite raids, such as the one that took place in February 1811 in the village of Marsh.

A large band of men, their faces blackened, swooped on a mill and smashed their way in, breaking all the machinery. One account describes how “as soon as the work of destruction was completed, the leader drew up his men, called over the roll, each man answering to a particular number instead of his name. “They then fired off their pistols…gave a shout and marched off in regular military order.”

Any local magistrate who jailed a Luddite was threatened with assassination. The ruling class poured 12,000 troops into Nottinghamshire-a larger army than had fought against Napoleon during wars that took place three years before. The government passed a law that made machine wrecking punishable by death. But this repression could not crush resistance. An establishment newspaper complained that “the insurrectional state to which this country has been reduced has no parallel in history”.

The movement spread. One Huddersfield manufacturer was ordered by a “general” to dismantle his shearing frames, otherwise “I will detach one of my lieutenants with at least 300 men to destroy them”.

WHEN THE war against France ended in 1815, instead of a “peace dividend” there was an economic slump. That same year parliament passed Corn Laws which increased grain prices. This provoked rioting across the industrial centres of Britain. People organised to try and stop parliament passing the Corn Laws.

One account describes how “in London and Westminster riots ensued, and continued for several days while the bill was discussed; at Bridport, there were riots on account of the high price of bread.

“At Bideford there were similar disturbances; at Bury, by the unemployed, to destroy machinery; at Ely, not suppressed without bloodshed; at Dundee, where owing to the high price of meal, upwards of 100 shops were plundered.” People became politicised, and in working class areas groups met to discuss how to challenge the rotten system. In South Wales the ironmasters who ran the iron trade slashed wages by up to 40 percent at a time of rising food prices. Iron workers at Tredegar struck in protest and sent out “flying pickets” to spread the action.

At Merthyr Tydfil there were riots and occupations. A Merthyr iron baron reported how “the enemy, in too great strength to oppose with any probability of success, have possessed themselves of all our works and wholly stopped them. As usual, argument useless.” On 16 August 1819 a huge 60,000-strong rally against the hunger produced by the Corn Laws took place in St Peter’s Field in Manchester. Troops of Hussars and “yeomanry” made up of the local upper class rode into the crowd, hacking with their sabres.

Men, women and children were butchered at the “Battle of Peterloo”. Eleven were killed and over 400 wounded. The capitalist press denounced the protesters as “rioters” and “revolutionaries”. The government cracked down with new repressive measures, but this only spurred on the radicalisation. During the 1820s the coalmining areas of Monmouthshire in Wales were alive with resistance.

Bands of miners disguised themselves as the “Scotch Cattle” and attempted, by threat and force, to control their working and living conditions and to keep their wages up. One account told how “every herd of Scotch Cattle had a bull as leader, selected for his strength and violence. “Each man was armed, face blackened, and the skin of horns of a cow worn, and with great bellowings they would assail a house, smash the furniture and burn down the premises.”

Workers’ newspapers sprang up, such as the Poor Man’s Guardian. Workers began to look more towards strike action than wrecking machines. The Chartists, the first mass working class movement in history, developed out of this industrial and political ferment. An early rallying point for the movement was in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

In March 1834 six farm workers from the Dorset village of Tolpuddle were arrested for “combining”. A rigged trial concluded with them being transported to Australia. A massive outcry followed. Protesters petitioned, held meetings and called a huge march in London.

The working class began to develop its own world view. As the Chartist leader Bronterre O’Brien wrote in 1833, “An entire change in society-a change amounting to a complete subversion of the existing ‘order of the world’-is contemplated by the working classes. “They aspire to be at the top instead of the bottom of society-or rather that there should be no bottom or top at all.” It is now up to today’s “anti-capitalists” to make that vision a reality.

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