Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History


13. The Political Struggle of the Capitalist Class.

'TO those who see no connection between politics and economic interests this Outline will be of no value, and maybe an apology is due for discussing politics when considering Industrial History. But to those who realise that political power is inseparable from, and is a reflex of, economic power, and that political power is of use in holding past-won rights and hastening further developments, no apology will be necessary. We believe that this lesson will prove to be valuable in showing how the middle-class captured the reins of political power and dominated the State for itself when it was powerful enough to do so; and it used, and still uses, the State (i.e., "the executive committee of the ruling class") to protect and strengthen its economic interests.

Allied to Monarchy.-Under Feudalism the barons maintained their rights by their swords. The tribute they paid to their overlord, the king, was composed more of services than of money. The Magna Charta (1215), the so-called "keystone of English liberty," was wrung from the king by their taking up arms against him. In the light of after events, it is of interest to note that the barons at one time seriously contemplated substituting for their reigning monarch a foreign prince. No such thing as a Parliament with regular sittings existed under Feudalism. An occasional assembly was held by the king and his lords, who made and administered the law in the assemblies and manor courts which, it will be remembered, superseded the mark-moot and shire-moot of pre-feudal times.

The decay of the feudal barons has already been described. Their extermination in internal a external warfare, the breaking up of their bands of retainers and the growth of the power of the king and the towns helped to create a new servile nobility which was completely dependent upon kingly favour for its land, which had in many cases been taken from the monasteries. In their little book, Morris and Bax describe the process thus:-

It was the interest of the towns to favour the growth of power in the king or monarch, since he was far off, and his domination was much less real and much less vexatious than that of the feudal neighbour, their immediate lord. The king, on his side, always engaged in disputes with his baronage, found his interest in creating and supporting free corporations in the towns, and thereby curbing the over-weening power of his vassals, while at the same time the growing production of the towns added to his exchequer by creating a fresh source of supply, easier to exploit than that which the military nobles yielded.

So, in time, the old feudal domains were welded together in a new political unit -the nation. The power of the Church and the might of the barons were gradually belittled. The rising commercial class were in close alliance with the kings. Ideas of a national market and trade came into being, and they were encouraged by the three Edwards in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was at this time that Parliament was formed. In 1295 the model Parliament of future times was held. To this Edward I., following the example of Simon de Montfort in 1265, called not only the barons, the knights of the shire and the Church prelates, but also two citizens from each city, and two burgesses from each borough. The citizens, the burgesses and the knights were, unlike the others, elected. At first called only for the purpose of finding money for the King, its sittings lasting only a few days, Parliament had secured by the end of the 14th century the right and control of taxation, and on two occasions deposed kings.

However, the destruction of the barons in "the bloody faction fights known as the Wars of the Roses," weakened the feudal section of Parliament, and in the 16th century we get a new type of monarchy, which dominated Parliament. Henry VII. and Henry VIII., with their tools, Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, are examples of this new type. Under Elizabeth, the last of the Tudors, was developed a perfervid nationalism begotten of national commerce and unity, and manifesting itself in literature.

The Disruption of the Alliance.-The alliance between the commercial class and an absolute monarchy was but a fleeting one. Paternal government and the divine right of kings became obsolete. To quote again the writers above referred to:-

The king, Charles I., aimed at completing the monarchical absolutism begun by the Tudors, while at the same time his course was clearer to him, because the old feud between nobles and king had quite died out and the nobles, from being powerful and often refractory feudal vassals, had become mere courtiers whose aims and interest were identified with those of the monarch. On the other side stood the bourgeoisie, who had thriven enormously on the growing commerce, were becoming powerful, and aiming not merely at social and economic freedom, but also at supremacy in the State. To the bourgeoisie also adhered the yeomen and the major part of the country squires, to which group Cromwell himself belonged.

The struggle caused by the growing economic development of the new class had its religious as well as political phase. Should king or Parliament rule? was the question to be decided. Slowly and timorously, with much harking back to 14th century piecedents, the middle class advocates assailed the king's prerogative, which even Bacon, among many other inferior thinkers, had glorified and accepted as rational. But the effects of the Reformation on the Continent and the New Learning made men less in awe of tradition and authority. The situation became more difficult until the middle class decided that tyranny gave the right of rebellion. The alliance terminated in revolt. "Law and order" were abandoned for a while at necessity's bidding. The Civil War began in August, 1642, and after much hesitation-and only by the iron firmness of Cromwell and his proletarian followers-was it ended in January, 1649, by the execution of the King. This was followed by a four years' Republic, a seven years' Protectorate, and then the landlords and the capitalists coalesced, and the reaction found expression in the Restoration.

The disturbing effects of this transition is mirrored in the intellectual ferment of this period. Old ideas went into the melting-pot. About this time, for example, Hobbes tried to prove that the State was based on human needs rather than on heavenly ordinances; the Sects had their commencement, and the Quakers, the Fifth Monarchy men and the Levellers each revived old ideas or originated new ones. The Communist Diggers and the Levellers represented the proletarian element in the Revolution, who went further in their demands than the middle-class wished to go.

Some comment on Puritanism -the religious phase of the struggle- may be of interest. The religion of Feudalism, with its collective salvation and easy-going ways, did not suit the "business needs" of the new class, and so there arose beliefs which, being concerned with the next world, interfered less with this. Capitalism could not thrive while men were thriftless, improvident, and spoilt by Church holidays and charity. Thrift, self-denial, prudence, diligence, simplicity, and such like -these are the virtues of Puritanism, very necessary to the small capitalist. As Craik puts it: "Puritanism is essentially a mental outlook belonging to the infancy of the accumulation of capital." At that time the possessor of such virtues could become a capitalist himself. But now thrift is not so necessary; the day of the small capitalist is gone; thanks to the solving of the problem of production, opportunity now exists for self-expression rather than repression and self-denial; the fear of scarcity has been largely overcome; and the practice of these virtues is now reserved for the workers. Puritanism is in its decadence.[See Meilly's Puritanism (Kerr&Co.) for special treatment of this subject.]

Returning, however, to political development, we find that, though the rebellion apparently failed, things were not the same. Nothing could revive the Anglican reverence for the monarchy among the people who had seen king beheaded. The Nonconformist industrial class helped to increase religious and political liberty. The open debauchery of the Court helped to bury for ever the divinity of kings.

The Triumph.-Any history book will supply an account of the events which culminated in the bloodless revolution of 1688, when Parliament asserted its supremacy by making a king of its own, calling in a Hollander in the person of William III. for the purpose. Henceforth the monarchy is no longer absolute, but limited. The revolutionary tide in England did not sweep high enough to wash away entirely the relics of Feudalism; but the House of Commons made good its control over money affairs.

The commercial and landed classes combined to form the Whig & Tory parties. The party system of government began. Mention has been made of the founding of the Bank of England (1694) and the National Debt (1693) with all its immense results; of the trade wars of the 18th century; of the effects of a pursual of the mercantile policy in our dealings with other nations, and of how Adam Smith and others attacked this policy in the latter half of the century.

This brings us to the Industrial Revolution. ItS political effects will alone be noticed. Hitherto agriculture and manufacture had been on equal terms, but the Industrial Revolution secured the predominance of industry, and premier place to the manufacturing interest. The industrial classes wished to translate this economic power into political power, and hence we have the agitation for franchise reform. This demand was only satisfied in the Reform Bill of 1832, which attempted to destroy the corrupt pocket-boroughs of the landed proprietors. Previous to its passing, villages with fifty inhabitants had elected two members, and the ploughed fields of Old Sarum, which gave seven votes, which elected two members (in a tent which had to be erected for the returning officer) is a well-known example of the former state of affairs. The Reform Bill, with its 10 occupier clause, put the power in the hands of the middle class and paved the way for later improvements.

Uses of the State and its End.-In confirmation of the thesis laid down in the introduction to this Outline, history informs us as to the attempts made, from the Statute of Labourers (1349) to the Combination Acts (1799), by the ruling class to force down wages, prevent association, and lengthen the working day through the power of the State. It will be our task to consider some of this (and later) legislation, when dealing with the rise of the trade unions. The 10th Chapter of Marx's Capital, especially Sections VI. and VII., should be consulted on the lengthening and shortening of the working -day; while the 28th Chapter furnishes details of the Poor Laws, and of the legislation directed against vagabondage and attempting to force down wages.

The fact that, between 1688 and 1845, 4,016 Acts were passed to enclose 6,320,426 acres, gives us another example of legislation benefitting the class owning political power and having, in this case, adverse effects upon the small peasant class, politically weak. The Corn Bounties are another example of the expression of economic interests. They were put into force for the sake of the landed interest, and their later repeal signalises the victory of the newer industrial interest. Our modern legislation, in the higher value which it places upon money and property than upon life, betrays its class origin.

Thus, while agreeing that economic power precedes political power and that laws are powerless to restrain economic development, it can be maintained that the power of the State has been used to strengthen and fortify the power of the dominant class. Economic antagonisms are reflected in politics. The essential class nature of the State should be, however, clearly understood. The State is the public power of coercion used by the rulers to keep the ruled in order. It was made necessary by the antagonism which arose when society became divided into classes, and it will be made unnecessary when the working class become the ruling class and there will be no dispossessed class needing coercion and restrait in the name of law and order.

When its function disappears, when "political government gives way to industrial administration," then the State is no longer wanted. Whether Westminster will be used, as William Morris prophesied, to store dung is another matter; but certainly we shall arrive at that condition when, like an Indian chief, we shall be able to behave ourselves without the aid of the policeman's baton or the hangman's rope. The class-consciousness necessary to achieve this will then replace all the sanctions, criterions, and threats of past moralities.

In the final conquest of political power, wishing to gain the help of the workers against its senior partner in the firm (the landed interest) and thereby generating the germs of its own decay, the capitalist class admitted with certain restrictions, the workers to political rights. And these political rights, enlarged and backed by industrial might, may yet be a factor hastening the coming of the future industrial system of society.

Books.-(Besides Chapters already mentioned):-Gibbins, Period V., Chap. I. Morris and Bax's Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, Chap. VIII. Macaulay, Green, and other historians should be read with the critical faculty alert. For the subjects discussed in the final paragraphs of this Outline, read W. W. Craik's Modern Working-Class Movement (closing pages). Marx's Communist Manifestoand 18th Brumaire.