- by Owen Bennett
- The Guardian
- Issue #2045
Bread line forms during Great Depression: Jobless line up early in the morning for a meal at one of the Central Union Mission locations in Washington, October 1930. Photo: Public domain
6th March marks International Unemployment Day. Unemployed workers have for centuries borne the scars of class war. Since the rise of capitalism in the 16th century, ruling classes have approached unemployment not as a social problem to be addressed but as a weapon to be wielded against the working class.
Capitalists invariably understood that the greater the misery inflicted upon unemployed workers, the more unemployed workers become willing to accept wages and conditions below the “going rate,” sometimes as a “strike breaking” force. Similarly, employed workers are made to fear unemployment and, as a result, become less confident in their demands to the boss. This drives down real wages and conditions, boosting profit rates in the process.
This led to Marx’s famous conclusion that the unemployed form not only a “lever of capitalist accumulation,” but also the “condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.” Echoing Marx, for centuries radicals have frequently rallied around the call for the “right to work.” By demanding the elimination of unemployment, radicals reasoned that capitalists would have less scope to use unemployment as a union-busting tool.
The high point of unemployed workers’ struggle came during the Great Depression (1929-1939). Confronted with record high rates of unemployment – typically more than 20 per cent of the workforce – and hopelessly inadequate systems of income support, unemployed workers and their allies across the world mobilised to demand job creation programs and social security payments as a right. Big business and their proxies fought bitterly against these demands, leading to a sharpening of the class struggle in most capitalist countries.
The ferocity of the struggle against mass unemployment during the Great Depression reflected the growing international influence of Communism. In September 1928, the Sixth Congress of the Communist International (Comintern) predicted that the global capitalist economy was heading toward a “revolutionary collapse.” This analysis argued that the capitalist class, confronted with a failing economy system, would increasingly rely on social democratic parties to use authoritarian measures to bring workers into line and shepherd capitalism thorough this turbulent “third phase” of capitalist development.
As economic conditions worsened and workers revolted, the Comintern predicted that labour moderates would, in partnership with the capitalists, resort to fascism to oppress the organised working class, particularly the unemployed. The Comintern directed its fraternal organisation, the Red International of Labour Unions (formed in 1920 to organise militant unionists), to build an international network of unemployed workers’ organisations.
On 16th January 1930, the Comintern executive declared 6th March the “international day” of protest against unemployment. The response from unemployed workers, who were mostly not involved in radical politics, was overwhelming. Across the world, dozens of Communist Parties and their fraternal organisations mobilised millions of unemployed workers and their supporters into mass rallies, often culminating in brutal police crackdowns.
In the United States, over one million workers attended dozens of protest rallies around the country under the slogan “Work or Wages” and “Don’t Starve – Fight!” Notable rallies were held throughout Europe, including in Berlin, Vienna, London, Manchester, Paris, Bilboa, and Seville.
The strong reaction meant that International Unemployment Day was quickly established as a leading rallying point of the international working class against the inaction of capitalist governments to address the horrors of mass unemployment. This burgeoning movement was remarkably successful in achieving concessions for unemployed workers and went on to have a significant impact on Depression-era and post-WW2 politics.