Brian Pearce

Constant Reader:

Class-War-Minded Bosses

(May 1959)

From The Newsletter, 9 May 1959.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.

One valuable service rendered by the engineering employers’ pamphlet on industrial relations is that it provides evidence from the horse’s mouth that sections of the employing class consciously plan in terms of the class war.

This is something which many of the younger generation of workers find it hard to believe.

The careful preparations made by the capitalists and their Tory government in the months between Red Friday and the General Strike provide one example from the past.

Another is the sustained offensive ‘by all arms’ waged in the 1890s, and culminating in the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, carried on by the ruling class with a view to smashing the militant spirit of ‘new unionism’ which had arisen among the workers in the late 1880s.

It was as part of this offensive that the Engineering Employers’ Federation was formed and the lock-out of 1897-98 enforced.

This was ended by those ‘terms of settlement’ – known after a revision in 1914 as the York memorandum – which have been a millstone round engineering workers’ necks ever since.

I understand that a fresh study of this period of Britain’s industrial history, focused on the aspect mentioned, will be included in the forthcoming volume of essays in memory of G.D.H. Cole, edited by John Saville and Professor Asa Briggs.

Allen Hutt made a contribution on this important episode with an article called A Forgotten Campaign of The Times against Trade Unionismwhich appeared in the Modern Quarterly before the war.

For some reason this article is ommitted from the useful Bibliography of Historical Writing in the Light of Marxism recently issued by the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party.

More about ‘misery’

Further to the matter of ‘increasing misery’, which bulks so big in ‘new thinkers’’ attempts to discredit Marxism and traditional socialist thought generally. The method employed is sometimes that of erecting an Aunt Sally.

Even Lassalle, who was no Marxist and who was criticized by Marx for his idea of an ‘iron law of wages’, did not hold such stupid views as are often attributed to him.

‘All that human beings suffer and miss,’ he pointed out in 1863, ‘depends on the relation between the means of satisfaction and the customary necessities of life already recognized at the time.

‘All human suffering and privation, and all human satisfaction – consequently, every condition – is measured only by comparing one’s situation with that in which other men of the same time find themselves, in reference to what the custom of the time deems necessary for existence.

‘The position of any man is always measured solely by its relation to that of other classes at the same time.’

No Chinese walls

Kautsky, then still a Marxist, made a similar observation in his pamphlet The Social Revolution – which used to be well known here in the edition printed by the Twentieth Century Press.

‘To the same extent as profits rise so does the mode of living of the bourgeoisie improve. But the classes are not divided by Chinese walls.

‘The increasing luxury of the upper classes trickles gradually through to the lower, and awakens in them new needs and new demands, to the satisfaction of which, however, the slow rise in wages is inadequate.’

It was Kautsky, too, who made what is perhaps the most vital point in this connexion, in a speech at the German Social-Democratic Party’s 1901 congress.

After stating that ‘ “increasing misery” is to be understood only as a tendency and not as an unconditional truth’, and reminding his listeners that Marx himself had, so early as 1847, pointed to the counter-tendency constituted by the growth of trade unionism, he went on to say:

‘But we must distinguish ourselves from bourgeois reformers, in that the latter think that the tendency itself can be overcome, and social peace established, a state of affairs in which Capital does not tend to force the workers down.

‘Capital must so tend; and that is the basis of the class war, which must go on till we wrench from Capital the instruments of its political and economic power.’

Last updated on 17.10.2011