Saturday, 8 January 2011

Remembering working class history

2011 will see a number of anniversaries from two particularly interesting events in working class history. Namely, the Luddite uprisings and the 1911 Liverpool General Transport Strike. Especially in the context of the present struggle, these anniversaries cannot pass unmarked.

The term Luddite, in modern parlance, means somebody who is afraid of change, in particular of technological advance. As a comrade once put it to me, this is very much a bosses' use of the term. It overlooks all of the issues surrounding the subject and boils it down to one negative connotation which is preserved forever in the language.

In fact, the subject of the Luddites' rebellion was not technology but the heightened exploitation of workers that technological advance wrought. Many had been thrown out of work because of new machinery. A lot of bosses sacked skilled workers once they could hire unskilled (mainly women) workers at a much lower price, and demanded that working mothers bring their children to labour in the mills for an even lower wage than the women earned. Union activities were severely punished, and children as young as ten and twelve were hanged for industrial unrest.

Thus began the uprisings. Not against machinery but against the "free" market which allowed bosses to brutally exploit, degrade, and dehumanise workers to an ever greater extent. And those who did not do this were spared the wrath of this early campaign of direct action.
But, as Northern Voices points out;
The truth is that as far as many on the left are concerned, the Luddites represent something unacceptable in the history of the working class movement in this country. Unlike the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they do not have an annual festival commemorating them, despite the fact they offer one of the earliest examples of highly organised, pseudo-trade union activity, and unlike the Martyrs, during a time when unions (or 'combinations' as they were known then) were outlawed. Unlike with the Peterloo Massacre, the Luddites weren't victims of drunken, sabre-happy Yeomanry breaking up a public meeting on one day in 1819: they waged a continuous campaign of direct action and insurrection for months, with the government sending upwards of 12,000 troops to the 'disturbed' counties to contain the uprising, more troops than were abroad fighting the Napoleonic Wars during the same period. The middle and ruling classes were instead their 'victims'.

Most notably, unlike the Chartists, their goals were not limited to obtaining reform of the existing political set-up, and rather than holding mass open-air daytime meetings, they met at night to drill on moorland, conducted raids to expropriate arms and targeted employers and mill-owners that had refused to meet their demands, melting back into their communities as and when necessary. To the extent they had leaders, to this day nobody knows who they were.

Therefore, it's not very easy to incorporate the actions and concerns of the Luddites into a history which largely culminates with the election of the Labour Party into government. For this reason, they are often simply sidelined as 'backward' and written off by many on the left as having little other concerns than wrecking machines for the hell of it. That is unless they are ignored altogether.
It is easy to see how this fits in with the debate between mass self-organisation and bureaucratic leadership, between direct action and passive protest. Especially now that those on the libertarian left are not only getting our voices heard, but making by far the stronger argument, the Luddites must no longer be ignored or dismissed.

Also this year, we see the centenary of the Liverpool General Transport Strike. Solidarity action in support of a national seaman's strike saw a large section of workers coming out on strike across the city, paralysing commerce for most of the summer. It also saw growing unrest, and battles between workers and the police and military forces brought in to quell them.

A much fuller account can be found on and in this month's Nerve Magazine.

1911 was the year that crystallised working class militancy in the city. It demonstrated just how much mass organisation and solidarity action by workers can achieve and paved the way for similar actions leading up to the outbreak of the first world war. It also established how far the leadership of trade unions are from their members in terms of both interests and militancy, a point which remains relevant today.

The main purpose in remembering any history is to learn its lessons, to avoid its mistakes, and to repeat its successes. As I said in my last post, I don't believe in historical determinism, but the past can certainly inform what happens in the present and how our future pans out - if we heed it.

But there is also the point that these events represent a history that is not often told. Certainly not by "official" historians and text books, in schools or on Television. It is the history of the working class, not conforming to cheap stereotypes for the benefit of nostalgic and utterly patronising documentaries, but openly fighting against the ruling class to assert our own interests and to destroy the system that bends us into servitude. It is the history of the class war.

As Howard Zinn wrote in A People's History of the United States, "the mountain of history books under which we all stand leans so heavily in the other direction-so tremblingly respectful of states and statesmen and so disrespectful, by inattention, to people's movements-that we need some counterforce to avoid being crushed into submission." Official histories teach us "to look to stars, leaders, experts in every field, thus surrendering our own strength, demeaning our own ability, obliterating our own selves," just as those who dominate "The Left" do today as they present themselves as our "revolutionary leadership."

But if - in the words of Nerve's editorial - we can look to "a time when the pace of struggle was dictated not by the leaders of Trades Unions or the Labour Party, but by workers who relied on each other," such as 1911, then we can build something different.