Praxis

JOHN FOSTER, MARX, MARXISM AND THE BRITISH WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT: SOME CONTINUING ISSUES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

Praxis (2012), 155, (1), 18–25.


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jOHN FOSTER. MARX. MARXISM AND THE BRITISH WORKING CLASS MOVEMENT: SOME CONTINUING ISSUES FOR THE 21ST CENTURY W e start with a paradox of British politics. In Britain the Communist Party has never won more than very limited electoral support and has at best secured only a couple of members of parliament. Yet as a party it has on occasion exercised very major influence within the working class movement. In the 1920s, 1940s and 1970s in particular, the resulting mobilisations compelled the ruling class of one of world's great imperial powers to retreat, change tack and adopt radically new strategies of rule. This paper considers how this influence was exerted and the origins of the style of work adopted. It argues that the source was two-fold. On the one hand, it stemmed from the party's adoption of a particular model of mass engagement in the 1920s derived from Lenin and his immensely influential Left Wing Communism. Later, however, this was supplemented by the party's own active learning - itself a product of its immersion within the mass movement. In terms of learning, however, the paper also notes that historically there was a reverse process. Lenin's own understanding of the relationship between the party and the wider movement was powerfully influenced by the lessons which Marx and Engels drew from their analysis of the British working class. 1. Marx and the problem of a non-revolutionary British working class Engels described Britain's National Charter Association of 1840 as the world's first authentically 'working class party'. 1 It based itself explicitly 18 Prof. John Foster, Emeritus Professor University of the West of Scotland & Committee Member Marx Library. on the working class. It was organised on democratic centralist lines of debate followed by united action. It had a mass membership and branches in virtually every town and village. The two week general strike of 1842, the biggest anywhere before the 20th century, was called in its name in order to secure a democratic suffrage. And democracy in such conditions of mass mobilisation by Britain's majority proletariat was, as Marx observed, tantamount to a direct challenge to capitalist state power. Yet within ten years this united class movement had disintegrated. While individual trade unions survived, they catered principally for skilled workers, organised little more than five per cent of the working population and mostly disavowed politics. Workers in general were drawn within the ideological orbit of the Liberal and Conservative parties and working class communities were increasingly divided by ethnic conflict directed against the one million emigrants who arrived from Ireland after the famine of 1846-7. So what had happened to the previously class conscious movement? The explanation developed by Marx and Engels attributes this transformation to the emergence of a 'labour aristocracy'. In brief, this refers to the stratum of skilled workers granted trade union freedoms in the course of the 1840s and 50s who used these rights to secure a growing income differential against the rest. What made these concessions possible was Britain's monopoly of world trade - and, as Engels noted, when this monopoly was eroded in the 1890s, united working class politics began to reemerge. But, while this trade monopoly lasted, it enabled Britain's rulers to grant privileges which ensured that the only section of the working class with any organisational strength did not use it on behalf of the working class as a whole. This explanation powerfully influenced, though in somewhat different ways, the arguments of both Lenin and Luxemburg. It is, however, important to look at what Marx and Engels actually said - particularly in light of the sustained attack made on the concept of the Labour Aristocracy over the past forty years. 2 Its critics argue it is reductionist: it seeks to explain ideology by direct reference to economics. The critics take particular exception to the concept of 'false consciousness': the claim that the diverse ideas, beliefs and patterns of consumption that divided

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