Mass organisation of workers by the workers themselves began in Britain, the cradle of the industrial revolution and large-scale industry. It began there, in fact, before the spread of large factories. It dates as far back as the second half of the 18th century, at which time the British proletariat was employed mainly in artisanal, manufacturing and agricultural firms.
Its main form of organisation was the association of artisans/journeymen (often benevolent societies; in France, the compagnonnages) which constituted a genuine bridge between the semi-feudal corporations and modern trade unions. Their narrow outlook and concerns, their localism and corporatism reflected the past. But their main forms of struggle prefigured the future: strikes and actions against strike-breakers, tenacious solidarity, attempts to achieve a minimum threshold of financial strength for self-defence, and more and more democratic statutes and outlook evidenced in the holding of general assemblies, the elections of their leaders, the formation of committees, the audit of the treasury, etc.
British employers were frightened by these associations and strikes. Their fear was compounded by the turbulent political nature of the epoch which witnessed the unpopular wars against the French revolution and the spread of the influence of pro-Jacobin associations like the London Corresponding Society. They therefore passed an Act in 1799 banning combinations of workers. In France, a similar interdiction had been promulgated when the Le Chapelier Law was adopted in 1791, confirming the bourgeois nature of the great French revolution.
The adoption of the Combinations Act obstructed the organisation of the young British proletariat, but did not bring it to halt. Organising efforts were forced underground and struggles in defence of the material interests of the workers acquired a more violent character. This became obvious first in the Luddite movement (1811-1812) centred in Nottinghamshire; this movement was remarkably well-organised and almost totally impermeable to police infiltration, stool pigeons and strike-breakers. Contrary to the myth spread by the class enemy, the Luddites were by no means opposed to machines in principle.
The goal of their activities was not to eliminate machines from the textile industry, but an increase of their wages, the struggle against the high cost of living and unemployment, and other such classical goals of the first trade unions. The tactic of making machines unusable developed because workers still rented their machines from their employers and operated them at home. Under those circumstances, the workers considered that making the machines unusable was the only way to make the strike really general. The British bourgeoisie was so scared by “the machine-breakers” that it had a bill voted punishing this “crime” with the death penalty.
Following the fall of Napoleon and the return to peace, a long economic depression hit Britain, condemned hundreds of thousands of workers to unemployment, caused wages to drop and provoked violent hunger riots. As these riots were combining with a resumption of the agitation for universal suffrage, the bourgeoisie further escalated its repressive moves. A large demonstration scheduled at St Peter’s Field, near Manchester, in 1819, was drowned in blood by the Duke of Wellington, the winner of the battle of Waterloo. This caused radical pamphleteers to dub it “the massacre of Peterloo.” Many historians consider this massacre as the spark that gave birth to the modern British labour movement.
From that point onwards, the movement followed a two-level trajectory. On the one hand, underground and semi-legal trade unions multiplied, along with economic strikes. The pressure to repeal the Combinations Act mounted steadily, including among the more intelligent employers who understood that, if strikes were going to happen, it was preferable to deal with legal and authoritative representatives of the workers, with whom a prompt end to the strike could be negotiated, rather than have the strikes drag out over long periods. The Act was finally repealed in 1825. The professional associations of workers systematically adopted the name of trade unions (unions of a craft) as early as 1824 and 1825. They rapidly superseded their narrow localist and corporatist outlook.
On the other hand, the agitation for universal suffrage begun by William Cobbett in the 1815-1819 period, at which point it had culminated in the Peterloo rally, was revived by a new campaign in 1830-1832. This time, it led to the adoption of the Reform Bill of 1832, a law drafted by the Liberals to increase the representation of the cities. After the failure of the Liberals to obtain further advances in Parliament, this agitation led to the creation of the first mass workers party, the Chartist Party. This movement borrowed from the agitation of 1815 to 1819 the tactic of mass petitions as its main weapon of struggle. Its goal was to collect signatures in favour of a Charter demanding universal suffrage. Launched in 1837-1838, the campaign began with an impressive rally of 150,000 people in Glasgow, Scotland. The city had already been the site of a successful fusion of the economic and political struggles of the working class in 1819-1820, when 60,000 workers, mainly miners, struck for universal suffrage.
The first attempts to achieve autonomous organisation and action of the working class occurred around the same time on the European continent and in the United States. In the United States, artisans created the first local workers party in history in Philadelphia, in 1828. In France, the first purely working-class insurrection, that of the “canuts”, the weavers of the area of La Croix Rousse, was attempted in Lyons, the capital of the French silk industry, in 1831; the workers held the city for several days. In Germany, the revolt of the weavers of Silesia, immortalised by the great poet Heinrich Heine, took place in 1844.
In Belgium, the most industrialised country of the European continent, the workers of the Ghent spinning mills attempted to create trade unions as early as 1810-1815. Following the revolution of 1830, petitions were sent to Parliament by Ghent workers demanding universal suffrage, freedom of association, total freedom of the press and the establishment of an inheritance tax. They were supported by workers in Brussels and Liege. In 1836, the first workers political meeting took place in Brussels, at the initiative of Jacob Kats, the author of the first workers’ catechism, a piece that undeniably influenced the young authors of the Communist Manifesto, also written in Brussels.
Finally, one should note the emergence of Proudhon’s current among the utopian socialist sects. Contrary to the Saint-Simonian, Fourierist and Owenite groupings, this was a current of purely working-class origin. Proudhon, like Weitling, was a self-taught worker, albeit an artisanal worker. Appearing on the historical scene later than his great forerunners, he tried, like Marx and Engels, to incorporate lessons drawn from classical German philosophy and English political economy into the socialist doctrine. But he did so on the basis of insufficient and poorly assimilated knowledge, with an obvious lack of scientific maturity, which reflected in the last analysis the particular social situation of the French crafts and pre-proletariat.
As he saw it, the problem was to emancipate the worker/craftsman from the domination of money (capital), without abolishing commodity production and competition: a typically artisan-petty-bourgeois illusion. While Proudhon has sometimes been presented with some justification as the father of the idea of workers self-management, his system quite clearly also contained some of the dead-end solutions typical of “market socialism”. We are now in a position to witness the economic results of this sort of solution in post-1970 Yugoslavia. The political and social risks that arose from his dead-end economic proposals are also visible there, namely the risk of breaking the working class up into groups competing with each other, their monetary incomes depending on each group’s performance on the market.
Despite their very great diversity, all these initial attempts at autonomous action and organisation of the workers/direct producers shared certain common features that made them the true initiators of the modern labour movement. The latter was therefore born before Marx and Engels, and independently of their activity or, for that matter, of the activity of any intellectual agitator or (utopian) “theoretician.” It was the direct product of the exploitation and poverty suffered by the workers under the capitalist regime, the immediate product of bourgeois society.
As a matter of fact, if “responsibility” for the struggle of the working class had to be laid at the doorstep of some figure, that figure would be the employing class, through the day-to-day, permanent, ruthless class struggle it wages against the wage earners with the help of its capital and its state.
The great merit of the first actions and organisations of wage earners mentioned above, was the conquest of class independence, the realisation that workers needed to organise themselves, separately from their bosses, whether large or small, with a view to defending their own interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie, including the latter’s most radical political wing. This enabled thousands of workers to achieve an initial level of class consciousness: economic, trade-union class consciousness, which, when it becomes massive and permanent, must be considered an enormous leap forward compared to the atomisation and disorganisation of the workers’ very existence and first attempts at resistance.
Finally, these first attempts of the working class at collective action and permanent organisation sketched the essential forms of struggle which were to mark the class struggle throughout the entire world down to this day: strikes and forms of organisation designed to insure their success (creation of mutual aid and resistance funds, strike pickets, propaganda and action against strike-breakers, education for collective solidarity, etc); mass demonstrations and processions; mass meetings and rallies; mass circulation press (in England, William Cobbett, who was one of the first political propagandists of the working class and a precursor of Chartism, published 200,000 copies of a special issue of his newspaper, The Political Register, containing his Letter to labourers and Wage Earners, in 1816); petitions and various forms of agitation for universal suffrage, the generalisation of democratic rights, etc.
Nevertheless, these first manifestations of the independent class action and organisation of the wage earners themselves were marked by a series of weaknesses, which almost all these attempts shared:
The most typical case is that of England. The most politically active workers first supported the petty-bourgeois agitation in favour of universal suffrage, then the struggle of the liberal Whig Party for the Reform Bill, then formed their own independent political party in the guise of Chartism, only to fall back into dependence on the policy of the Liberal Party beginning in the 1850s and for a long time thereafter.
The same was true for over two decades in Germany, where the first permanent independent workers party was only founded by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863, around the demand for universal suffrage; this party fused with the “Marxist” party of Liebknecht and Bebel in 1875.
In France and Belgium, even more time went by before lasting independent workers parties were created. In the United States, Argentina, Mexico and other countries where the trade-union movement has a dynamic tradition, this second stage of proletarian class consciousness still has not been conquered to this day.
Marx and Engels undertook a gigantic effort, for over half a century, to overcome these weaknesses. In the end, they were basically successful, at least in a large number of countries (all the industrialised countries of the 19th century except the United States). Their efforts can be described as a gradual, progressive fusion of the real movement of the proletariat towards independent action and organisation, with the main achievements of scientific socialism accessible to the broad masses (not with all aspects of the Marxist doctrine):
In retrospect, we can see that although that unification provided the basis for a first impressive expansion of the organised workers movement, it was not sufficient to insure the victory of proletarian revolutions. Nevertheless, it was indispensable for the creation of the conditions needed for such victories.
Last updated on 22.7.2004