Luddites, Utopian Socialists and the Class Struggle
by Eddie Clynes
From Marx and Engels’ illumination of the political economy of capitalist society, succinctly presented in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, flows our concept of class in bourgeois society, our definition of class consciousness and our contemporary understanding of the class struggle.
Indeed, since Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, 150 years ago, this little booklet has been, for generations of the world’s working class and socialist activists, an introduction to a consistent class outlook.
The Manifesto arms the working class with a clear description of its own condition.
Capitalism condemns the working class to a dehumanising existence. “In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed — a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”1
Such insights serve as a powerful motivation in the struggle of the working class for socialism.
Since the Manifesto first defined the working class (“the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live”) and set forth its historical mission, the world’s working class has gained much experience. Some contingents have overthrown their own bourgeoisie and are learning how to building a new society. Some are now suffering the backlash of counter-revolution. In all this time, the struggle of the working class has never ceased.
In the “Preface to the 1888 English Edition” of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, Frederick Engels observed: “ ... the history of the Manifesto reflects to a great extent, the history of the modern working-class movement ... ”2
Hence, the significance of the Communist Manifesto can only be realised if we have some appreciation of the earlier period of working-class struggle against capitalism.
Before the Manifesto was written, a scientifically substantiated way forward for the working class which dispensed with capitalism had not been elaborated and numerous social theories and courses of action vied for pre-eminence.
Prior to the Manifesto, the historical role of the working class was not understood because there had not yet been developed a consistent analysis of capitalism and its role as the last exploitative system.
The genius of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels is that they clearly saw the nature of the emerging industrial capitalist society. Long before all others they discerned within capitalist society, that social force which held the future in its hands — the working class.
The development of capitalism which Marx and Engels analysed, is the development of the industrialised economy, which depends on the central role of machines, as distinguished from previous forms of capitalist economy, in which hands tools predominated.
Industrialisation began in England (the classical country of the industrial revolution) around the 1760s.
Industrialisation took place in two stages, the first comprising the simple co-operation of machines, where mechanisation was introduced into each separate stage of a production process.
The second stage of industrialisation saw complex systems of machinery introduced, integrating the previously separate phases of production. An entire production process was carried out with workers as mere attendants, “appendages” of the machines.
Machinery completely overcame the limits of human strength, speed and agility.
With industrialisation, the machine became predominate. To the emerging working class, it appeared as the central problem, the cause of their slavery, the reason for their poverty and misery, that which forced them to set their children to work.
Hence, one of the earliest revolts against capitalism was machine wrecking. In the early 1800s, the British Parliament adopted a law making it a capital offence, following riots in the Nottingham hosiery industry. Thirty knitting frames were destroyed, mainly by hand knitters who could no longer make a living competing with the cheaper products of machinery.
Similar acts took place in the English countryside, where farm labourers prosecuted what Morton in his People’s History of England tagged “the war in the villages”.3
From 1793 to 1815, with the price of wheat soaring, “the barest common and the smallest garden were grasped by landlords eager to turn them into gold.”4
With wages falling and rents and food prices remaining high, the mass of the rural population passed from “a beef, bread and ale standard of living” to a “potato and tea” existence.5
In 1830, the introduction of the threshing machine proved the last straw. It inflamed the villagers of Southern England who felt they were facing extinction.
Previously, rick-burning had been carried out by farm labourers only, but this “last labourers’ revolt”6 was now joined by village craftsmen, blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, all whose livelihood was threatened.
Not only were threshing machines destroyed, but workhouses were wrecked and battles with the yeomanry (law enforcers) broke out.
This was one of the high points of the Luddite movement which was prevalent in the textile and agricultural industries. It dated from the 1760s and took its name from a Leicestershire journeyman Ned Ludd.
Similar social conditions produce similar courses of action and machine wrecking also occurred on the continent, in France, Belgium, Germany, Poland, Switzerland.
Although machinery was blamed for bringing workers a new dark age, “the Luddite movement also pursued practical objectives: it was a protest against beggarly wages and intolerable working conditions in general.”7
The Luddite movement was an important stage in developing the working-class movement. It was by no means a futile response to capitalist slavery. The emerging proletariat had begun to take independent action. It was not yet guided by any mature analysis of capitalism, but undoubtedly contributed to the prize the Manifesto holds so dear, the “ever-expanding union of the workers.”8
It was the Manifesto which disclosed that machines (capital) were not just things. Behind their imposing appearance lay a social relationship. The wealth of the minority was based on their private ownership of the means of production, allowing them to exploit the majority, who had nothing to sell but their labour power.
Courageous, bold and determined as the Luddites were, the struggle cannot be prosecuted or won without guidance by revolutionary theory. Militancy on its own is not enough and that lesson still holds good today.
In the historical search for a solution to its condition, the working class attracted a variety of theorists, including the Utopian socialists.
Engels explains why the Manifesto could not have been called the Socialist Manifesto. “By Socialists, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand, the adherents of the various Utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks, who, by all manners of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances, in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the ‘educated’ classes for support ... Thus, Socialism was, in 1847, a middle-class movement, Communism, a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, ‘respectable’; Communism was the very opposite.”9
According to the Manifesto, the Utopian socialists, Saint-Simon and Fourier in France, Robert Owen in England, developed their systems in the “early undeveloped period ... of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie.”10
The proletariat in its infancy offered to them “the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”11
The Utopians sympathised immensely with the suffering of the working class, but “only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.”12
Robert Owen (1771-1858), while recognising class struggle, wanted to do away with it through enlightenment, reforming human character by appealing to the wealthy class to refashion the people’s environment. Owen envisioned a new society very much based on public ownership, and he travelled extensively, submitting proposals to governments around the world to begin transforming capitalism.
Owen’s experimental society, centred around his mills in New Lanark in Scotland, was certainly underpinned by humanitarian considerations but his moral motivations dovetailed with some sound economics.
Owen realised that new steam technology, driving more sophisticated machinery, made a ten-and-a-half-hour day more productive and profitable than a long sixteen or eighteen hour day and allowed the elimination of child labour. Owen also had plans for land reform, with governments buying up private land and apportioning it to those who require it.
Owen had some small successes and he was influential in the spread of co-operative movements, but he never saw the working class as being responsible for its own liberation.
He appealed to county councils, parliaments, influential and outstanding individuals, spread his word through speeches and articles, but bourgeois society was wary of an “encroachment on the mainstays of their state.”13
An appeal to those in power was also the main method of achieving a just society employed by two outstanding representatives of French Utopian thought, Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and Charles Fourier (1772-1837).
Both Saint-Simon and Fourier were scathing in their criticisms of capitalist society, the poverty of the majority, the social parasitism of the few, the social polarisation, the enormous power of the state which supported the interests of the wealthy.
They both abhorred the “economic anarchy” of capitalism and envisaged a society with planned production, but they believed this would come about because the state would subordinate the actions of the “industrial class” to the general plan.
So private property in the means of production, hence exploitation and profit making for the few, would be preserved.
Historically and philosophically, the methods of the Utopian socialists for achieving a new society, were doomed to failure.
It was unfettered idealism to dream of re-educating the bourgeoisie, by convincing its members that their profit-hungry, pro-capitalist ideas, their lust for maximum profits through fierce exploitation of the working class, was wrong and that they should adopt a more humane approach to their fellow human beings.
The Manifesto made it clear that the ideas of the capitalists, capitalist morality (or lack of it), is what is necessary for capitalists to exist as such, to maintain their social relationship vis-a-vis the working class, on the one hand, and to prosper or be ruined by other capitalists, on the other.
The never-ending dog-fight, the unrepealable law of competition between capitalists, big and small, between monopolies, TNCs, between countries and between imperialist blocs, it is this which profoundly influences the capitalist attitude to workers.
That was the case when Marx and Engels penned the Manifesto. It is still true today. Some graphic contemporary illustrations of this truth are to be seen in the Asian countries which have been hit by the latest capitalist crisis.
Achievements of Utopians
None-the-less we must recognise the achievements of the Utopian socialists, especially as forerunners of the political theory developed by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto.
Both Saint-Simon and Fourier, in analysing the French Revolution, discovered it was “not a history of the struggle between reason and emotions or education and ignorance, it was a history of class struggle ... ”14
They realised the connection between the political parties participating in that great turning point of the late Eighteenth Century and the various social classes in French society.
Saint-Simon in his writings and more so Robert Owen in his practice, concluded that economics gives rise to politics. History cannot be comprehended by limiting our study to great personalities, intrigue and diplomacy. Unless the political economy of society is disclosed, nothing is revealed.
Following the logic of their discoveries, the French Utopians exhibited a vague understanding of the idea that history had a pattern, that there were stages of progress, spurred on by contradictions.
“Poverty is born of super-abundance itself,” said Fourier, whereas Saint-Simon coined the phrase “exploitation of man by man”.
The Utopians’ vision began to be called “socialism” and Engels’ comments on the contrast with the term “communism” have already been cited.
Limitations of Utopians
Marxism now enables us to criticise the limitations of the Utopian socialists.
Their theories of classes and class struggle dealt primarily with the large inequalities in the sphere of distribution, rather than locating the source of social inequality in the process of production and capitalist property relations.
Because of this, while being merciless in their condemnation of exploitation and its effects, they failed to understand how this occurred under capitalism and which social force was needed to carry out the desired social transformation. This left the theories of the Utopian socialists narrowly focussed and unfinished.
Lenin called Utopian socialism “non-political socialism” and praised the Communist Manifesto for “taking up the cudgels” against it. It was Marxism said Lenin, which “linked up the economic and political struggle of the working class into a single inseparable whole.”15
Today we are well aware of the solution to capitalist exploitation. We understand capitalist exploitation, we have a theory of the state and the working class party. Socialist societies have been built and are still being built; communist parties have been formed in many countries and the idea of socialism is widespread.
In 1848 Marx and Engels declared “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win” and called for a “communistic revolution”, an overthrow of the “existing social and political order of things”, so that the working class becomes the ruling class, thereby abolishing both itself and the bourgeoisie as antagonistic classes in bourgeois society. This was the first time such a solution had been proclaimed and consistently substantiated.
The idea of socialist revolution, of overthrowing the capitalist class, hit bourgeois society like a bombshell. It shook the bourgeoisie and its ideology to its foundations.
Truly revolutionary way
It was a new, radical, truly revolutionary way forward for the working class. It was the first time the responsibility had been put on the workers as a class to liberate themselves — a complete contrast with the methodology of the Utopians who believed the working class could only be liberated by others.
The lowly, downtrodden, mostly illiterate, poverty-stricken class of workers, mainly unskilled labourers, were called on to lead society, to chart the way forward, to emancipate all of the oppressed, to become the ruling class. To the bourgeoisie, the idea must have seemed preposterous, impertinent, the most sinister heresy!
Marx and Engels characterised the proletarian movement as “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.”
“The proletariat”, they added, “the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”16
What a tremendous historical task Marx and Engels set the working class and what a contrast between the status Marxism bestowed on it and the previous lowly status it was assigned and which it had in the main taken for itself since its foundation.
Luddism is no longer with us, but today we seem to be overtaken by its opposite, the inevitability of technological change coupled with the blind belief in capitalism’s ability to provide us with all we need.
This new utopia, this technologically-based illusion, is conjured up by International Monetary Fund spokespeople, by conservative governments, by electioneering social democrats, and by the media in its constant attempts to mesmerise the working people.
Donald J Johnstone, Secretary-General of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), says that by the year 2020, the world economy will have realised “a new age of global prosperity” bringing “world-wide increases in welfare ... as a result of substantially increased interdependence and reduction in world poverty.” Such is the propaganda of the OECD and other imperialist think-tanks!17
This same illusion is a stock-in-trade tool of business and with the adoption of the Accord in Australia in 1983 it also became common for union leaders to embrace it.
Australia in Transition, produced by the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union in 1995, after 12 years experience of the Accord process, promised that to “live well in the second half of the 1990s and into the 21st Century, Australians have to produce and trade better than we have in the past.”
It emphasised that “to improve workers’ living standards and generate more jobs, we need to make major changes in the way our companies are managed and our factories produce wealth.”18
The changes envisaged are not those which challenge the power of capital and its sacred right to exploit.
Australia in Transition proposed the “Australian corporate sector act as a constructive social partner along with the Australian union movement and the Federal Government to achieve full employment” and that companies and unions work together with government to “discourage short-term speculation.”19
It even proposed that “decision making power over the management and control of production”20 be devolved to employees, through a process of union-company co-operation!
It is utopian and not in the interests of the working class to think some accommodation, some trade-off, some accord, can be made by the working class with the capitalists and once the compromise is made, the demand for sacrifices will stop and all will be rosy from then on.
The modern-day utopian dream of making that final increase in productivity and expecting a decent wage rise, from then on immune from further erosion and attack, will never be realised, it cannot be realised. The working class will find no peace under capitalism.
Contrary to the dreams of the classical Utopian socialists and to those of our modern-day utopians, the struggle goes on, because the logic of capitalism, so well expounded in the Communist Manifesto, does not allow for the dog-eat-dog competition, the imperialist plunder, the super-exploitation to cease, and for all to then live happily ever after.
Despite some hard-fought recent union struggles in Australia, modern-day utopian socialism has done much damage to the working class movement over the last 15 years, both ideologically and in depressing wages and destroying conditions.
In many quarters of the trade union movement it is still considered outdated and confrontationalist to raise the reality of the class struggle.
There is still boundless faith in co-operating with employers rather than confronting them and winning struggles. Indeed, one of the major criticisms of the Howard Government has been its re-introduction of “confrontation” into industrial relations, in contrast with the “co-operative approach” developed under the former Federal Labor Governments.
Many of the insights in the Manifesto into the nature of capitalism need to be re-introduced into today’s working class movement.
“Exploitation” as used in the Manifesto refers to the extraction of surplus value from workers during the production process, not just to excessively harsh working conditions and starvation wages.
The concept of exploitation needs to be brought to the fore by the working class, exposing the massive profits companies extract from workers, showing how much profit per worker is being made and contrasting that with workers’ wages.
Focussing on surplus value extracted (profits), is a far more effective way of doing battle with capitalists than becoming embroiled in endless arguments to prove that workers have adequately raised productivity and efficiency.
From the Manifesto’s perspective, such debates amount to proofs that workers are deserving of wage rises and improvements in conditions, because they have managed to co-operate in increasing their own exploitation.
With the onslaught on the public sector in recent years, bringing a flood of privatisation, commercialisation and contracting out, a feeling of the inevitability of such measures has been deliberately fostered.
There have been many anti-privatisation struggles but rarely, if ever, do we take the opportunity to develop the Manifesto’s injunction to bring the property question to the fore, by raising the issue of nationalisation of lost public assets and major industries.
Re-build the union movement
The Australian working class is faced with the task of re-building the trade union movement. This cannot be done without developing the independent action of the working class for its own demands.
The widespread tendency (and practice) to substitute negotiations and deals for workers’ organised actions will not help the working class become a “self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority”.21
The growing fragmentation of the working class, through the deliberate breaking down of the award system, by the introduction of enterprise bargaining and individual work contracts, and indeed the desertion by workers of the trade union movement since the early 1980s, has to be reversed.
As Marx and Engels observed in the Manifesto, the organisation of the working class “is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves”.22
Capitalism’s prime aim has never ceased to be profit making through the exploitation of the working class.
There are no “win-win” scenarios satisfying both worker and capitalist. Working class interests are diametrically opposed to capitalist interests.
There is no bright technologically-driven future for the working class under capitalism; the promise of a new utopia satisfying both worker and capitalist is only a cruel hoax inflicted upon the working class movement to disarm the workers ideologically.
The struggle for socialism cannot be successfully waged by the working class if we abandon the considerations Marx and Engels forced the movement to make 150 years ago.
In our struggle to have the ideas of the Communist Manifesto accepted by the working-class movement in Australia, we can be heartened by Lenin’s assessment of it:
This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organised and fighting proletariat of the civilised world.23