Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

In Struggle!

The working class seeks to win its political independence

First Published: In Struggle! No. 214, August 19, 1980
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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In this new series of articles, we will review various key periods and episodes in the struggle of the international proletariat. In today’s article, we will take a look at European history between the beginning of the 19th century and 1889.

Aristocracy and bourgeoisie

Towards 1800 and even 1820, Great Britain was still the only country where the development of capitalism was underway to any significant extent. Elsewhere – in France and Prussia, for instance between 80% and 90% of the population was rural; there were relatively few workers, and they were concentrated in the cities.

The landed aristocracy, which owed its wealth to the fact that it owned the land, still had the upper hand everywhere at that time. All it was interested in was preserving the status quo of the Middle Ages – kings and emperors with unlimited powers, Church control of people’s thinking and a predominant position for the big land owners.

In contrast to this old class, already on the decline, the bourgeoisie was on the rise. It owned the industries and controlled the urban centres. Its economic power was growing steadily, but the established order of things was an obstacle to its development. The bourgeoisie needed the free and unrestricted movement of people to ensure a ready constant supply of manpower; it also needed the free circulation of goods, capital and ideas. It needed adequate markets. It had an interest in establishing political democracy, thus acquiring the means to oppose the power of the aristocracy and take power itself. At the time, the bourgeoisie represented progress for society, because of the possibilities of development that it opened up.

The burning Issues of the day ... In 1800

Our article begins with the period around 1800, when the struggle between these two classes was in full swing. The republican bourgeoisie had carried out revolutions and conquered political power in the Netherlands in 1570, in England in 1649 and in France in 1789.

But given the low level of the development of capitalism at the time, the bourgeoisie was still not strong enough to stay in power; everywhere, it lost power again to the monarchical aristocracy.

In 1815-1820, the bourgeois democratic revolution was not yet an established fact in any Western European country. It was therefore a major contemporary issue. Another major question at the time was the creation of nation-States, a phenomenon related to the development of the bourgeoisie. As a matter of fact, the borders of the various States were in a constant state of change throughout the 19th century. The Polish, Hungarian, Czechoslovakian, Irish and other peoples were forcibly annexed by various empires and were to wage unrelenting struggles for the formation of independent States of their own.

The nation-State was also a problem for Italy and Germany, but from another angle. Neither of these two countries actually existed at the beginning of the 19th century. There were a number of Italian States, each of them independent; and there were 25 German States, each one independent and keenly attached to the distinguishing characteristics they had inherited from the Middle Ages. The Italian States were unified in 1861, and the German States in 1871.

The early practical and theoretical progress of the proletariat

This, then, was the general setting of the struggle of the proletariat in the early 1800s. Very early on, even before the workers had lost all traces of their previous status of handicraftsmen, they had taken up the struggle against the bourgeoisie that exploited them very savagely [1]. Their demands were limited to economic and defensive demands, and to fight for them they grouped together in various more or less illegal friendly and mutual aid societies. But the conflict between workers and the bourgeoisie was still secondary in a society that had not yet succeeded, despite years of struggle, in ridding itself of the vestiges of the Middle Ages and the domination of the aristocracy. The working class had no choice but to choose sides in the prevailing situation – the struggle of the republican and democratic forces against the monarchical and reactionary forces solidly united in their stand against progress.

This embryonic development of the working class was reflected in the theories of utopian socialism put forward by Fournier, Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Owen, and so on. These thinkers wanted to correct the evils of capitalism, but their theories went no further than the description of an ideal society in which work would be reorganized on a co-operative basis. Their kind of socialism had no place for the political action of the working class.

The communist movement only emerged later, with the creation in the 1840s of the Communist League, in which Marx and Engels were active. The Communist Manifesto, written in 1847, was the first programme of the working-class movement, the first systematic presentation of a scientific socialism based on the real contradictions of capitalism.

The bourgeois revolution of 1848

But the working class soon went beyond the economic struggle. From 1838 on, workers in Great Britain, where the working class was most developed, became massively involved in the Chartist movement, which could be called the first working-class political party. The Chartist movement focussed all its work on demands tied to political democracy – universal manhood suffrage (women were frequently forgotten or ignored during this period), secret balloting, annual Parliaments... Despite a broad base of support, the Chartist movement failed; by 1850, it had disappeared.

The serious economic crisis of 1846-47 touched off a new wave of revolutionary struggle in most of Europe. In 1848, the bourgeois democratic revolution was victorious: the Republic was proclaimed in France, Germany and Austria. It was accompanied by the establishment of universal suffrage and most of the democratic rights (the right to free assembly, freedom of the press, etc.). The State and the Church were separated, and slavery was abolished in the French colonies (where it still existed), as was serfdom in Austria. In Eastern European countries, where capitalist industry was practically nonexistent, the movement took on a more national colouring. Hungary proclaimed its independence.

The working class played an important part in these uprisings, adding its own demands for bread and work to, the democratic demands put forward. In Paris, there was a strictly working-class uprising against the bourgeoisie.

The situation soon changed, however; by 1849, it was no longer revolutionary. In France, the bourgeois power established in 1848 lasted only 3 years. One of the factors that has to be kept in mind here is that the vast majority of the population were still peasants for whom serfdom was no longer an issue and who tended to hold themselves aloof from the major movements and disturbances in the cities.

Writing in 1895, Engels drew some lessons from the revolutions of the previous 50 years, including that of 1848. This is what he had to say: “The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of unconscious masses, is past.Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for” [2]

The communist tactic

The communist tactic at the time was based on the fact that the bourgeois democratic revolution was an inevitable stage in the development of society, that there was no alternative, given the classes involved (characterized by the preponderance of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie). The proletariat thus had to support these revolutionary movements and struggle to establish a political arena in which it would be free to organize. The bourgeois revolution was therefore in the interests of the proletariat. But at the same time, it wasimportant that the proletariat not fall under the control of the bourgeois democrats (as happened in Germany in 1848). The working class had to organize on an entirely independent basis. It had to propagate communist ideas. But above all, it had to avoid losing sight of its final goal – winning political power. It could not content itself with the rather uncertain gains of the democratic stage, but had to urge the movement forward at alltimes. “To put it briefly, as soon as victory is won, the working class has no longer to beware of the defeated reactionary party; rather, it must turn its attention to its former allies, to the party that wants to appropriate their common victory for itself.” [3]

The bourgeoisie begins to tire of making revolution

The early 1850s were a turning point in a number of respects. The bourgeois revolution of 1848 was defeated and most of the democratic gains lost in whole or in part. The privileges of the Church were restored; freedom of the press and the right to free assembly were greatly restricted; the Republican opposition was exiled; the young communist movement came under attack [4]; universal suffrage was thrown out the, window; and the various parliaments either dissolved or deprived of any real power. As late as 1890, the emperor still had the power to dissolve the German parliament at will; parliament could not propose legislation nor challenge executive (ministerial) power in any way.

In terms of the economy, 1850 signaled the beginning of a period of-accelerated growth for capitalism that was to last until 1873 (although interspersed with some depressions). From then on capitalism spread throughout the continent, and notably in Germany. And with the growth of capitalism came the growth of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Battlelines shifted. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie concluded a series of agreements and compromises: the aristocrats began to sit on the boards of directors of the new corporations, while the capitalists accepted the authority of an emperor – in Germany, for instance – on the condition that it serve their interests (as was the case with the unification of Germany).

Contradictions between the two classes of owners died down, while the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie became sharper and sharper. The proletariat still needed political democracy in order to organize for its struggle, but the bourgeoisie had lost much of its interest in this battle. The working class came to realize that the republic promised by the bourgeoisie could be a conservative institution, opposed to the demands of the working class. With the economic crisis of 1857, the retreat of the working-class movement came to an end. It resisted with increasingly numerous strikes. The political situation changed as well. In the United States, civil war broke out in 1861 between the industrialized and republican North and the agricultural South, with its slave-based economy. (Slavery was only abolished in the United States in 1865). In Poland, there was a major uprising in 1863. Italy was unified, Ireland continued its struggle against British rule, and so on.

The International Working Men’s Association

In this context of growing struggle, the International Working Men’s Association, also known as the First International, was founded in 1864 to coordinate and unite the working-class movement in all countries. When it was founded, the Association included just about all the political trends in the working-class movement, from the French Proudhonists to the British trade unionists, and from the democrats and republicans in exile, to the remnants of the Chartist movement and the movements of 1848 on the continent, the Marxists, etc. The First International was not founded on the basis of a specific programme. The statutory congresses were to decide the line of the organization. Marx played a very important role in this International, leading the two main ideological struggles it waged.

The first of these struggles was the struggle against Proudhonism, which was the predominant tendency in the Association until 1868. Proudhonism rejected any kind of political action, holding that the solution was to establish exchange in society on a recipriocal basis, through the organization of a system of mutual free credit. The Proudhonist solution was to reorganize society as it existed instead of destroying it through revolution.

After 1869, the second major struggle was directed against the anarchism of Bakunin, whose ideas were very close to those of Proudhon in many respects. He held that the working class should ignore all parliamentary struggles and all struggles for reforms. The State should be abolished immediately through an insurrectional general strike. The proletariat had no need for a political party since its goal was not to conquer power but to destroy all power. Anarchism got its most favourable response in the Mediterranean countries where capitalism was still relatively underdeveloped and where handicraftsmen on the decline and a displaced intelligentsia still played a fairly important role in society. Anarchists were responsible for many bombings and spontaneous attempts at insurrection that led nowhere.

The First International dissolved itself in 1872, torn apart by this second struggle. Engels was later to point out that it was impossible to continue the Association at a time when the working-class movement was in full retreat after the defeat of the Paris Commune and that it was out of the question for workers to take back the offensive right away. The great achievement of the First International, however, was to have shown the proletariat the need to take power.

The Paris Commune, March-May 1871

The influence of the First International was relatively weak in British unions, where the trade-unionist labour aristocracy was more than content to negotiate for a few more benefits under capitalism, while supporting the Liberal Party’s demands for a few reforms. Indeed, in 1867 the labour aristocracy won the right to vote, although most of the working class was still deprived of this right.

Things were different in France where the workers, more or less deprived of any unions, appreciated the (moral) support the First International gave to their strikes. The result was that the French sections of the International were subjected to more repression then any others. The situation was so bad that when the Commune was proclaimed in Paris, the International did not participate.

The Commune marked the overthrow of the bourgeois Republic that had just taken power after the Empire fell apart in August 1870, under the attacks of the Prussian army. The Commune was the first proclamation of proletarian power in the history of the world. It had a considerable impact on the working-class movement, stimulating it, but its real significance was that it gave a better idea of what the dictatorship of the proletariat would be once the bourgeois State was destroyed, as Marx pointed out in Civil War in France.

The Commune, however, received little support elsewhere in France (where the working class was not as strong). As well, it was divided between various political tendencies, including the Proudhonists, and was not led by any single party. After 72 days, it fell. The French bourgeoisie, backed by the German emperor, massacred the population of Paris. This was the last working class uprising of the 19th century.


The situation was changing. In 1873, a long economic depression began which lasted until 1896. The working class was constantly on the defensive for the ten years after the Commune. Reactionary forces joined hands across national boundaries in order to strike out at the socialists and the working class. In Germany, for example, the communist worker leader August Bebel was the victim of a major trial in 1872. The anti-socialist laws, owhich prohibited any propaganda against the established order, were adopted in 1878. The socialist movement in France was decimated.

However the working class was not held down for long. The eighties saw major growth in the number of unions on the continent, especially in France. In England, the industrial unions came into being at the end-of the eighties alongside the craft unions which had been around for a long time. The Knights of Labour, a progressive union with 700,000 members in 1886, organized in the United States.

These were the years during which many social-democratic parties were created. Some of them, notably the German party, threw themselves into parliamentary activity, hitherto unknown. Marxism was the predominant ideology in these parties in the period around 1880. It was not until 1890 however, that the socialist parties were to become real mass parties. As a result a relatively new problem came to the fore, namely what relationship to establish between the new parties and the new unions.

The period between 1880-1884 ends here with the Second international just about to be founded. The proletariat has made enormous progress. At the beginning its strength was barely significant and it was unorganised. Now, it had become a class with its own political parties and a scientific theory to guide its struggle for power. In the next article, we will take a look at what happened in the period between- 1889-1917.


[1] There is an excellent description of this in Engel’s work The situation of the English working class

[2] Engels, F. The 1895 Introduction in Class Struggles in France 1846-58 by Marx, International Publishers, p. 25.

[3] Marx and Engels, Adresse de comité central ŕ la Ligue des Communistes, March 1859, Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol 1, p. 189 of the French text (our translation).

[4] For example, the trial of the Cologne communists in 1852.