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 Chapter  I

Economic and Political Background to the Birth of Marxism

The Industrial Revolution

The French Revolution

The Bourgeois Democratic Revolutions

Conditions of the Proletariat

Working Class Consciousness and Proletarian Organisations


The birth of Marxism belongs to the period of the dramatic and revolutionary growth of capitalism in parts of North-Western Europe and North America which resulted in the conclusive victory of capitalism over the then predominant feudal system. This period, extending from the later part of the eighteenth century up to the mid-nineteenth century, saw one of the greatest transformations in human history and the establishment of the global domination of a few Western capitalist regimes, particularly the British. It not only led to the radical social and economic transformation of the capitalist countries, it also led to the capitulation and collapse of numerous age-old civilisations and empires of the world. India became a province administered by British governors, the Islamic states were thrown into crisis, Africa lay open to direct conquest, even the great Chinese Empire was forced in 1839-42 to open its frontiers to western exploitation. By 1848 nothing stood in the way of western conquest of any territory that western governments or businessmen might find it to their advantage to occupy, just as nothing but time stood in the way of the progress of western capitalist enterprise.

At the core of this immense transformation stood the two earthshaking revolutions of this period — the Industrial Revolution, centred in Britain, and the French Revolution of 1789, leading to numerous other bourgeois democratic revolutions. They represented the triumphant advance of the revolutionary modern bourgeoisie. Some ground for these revolutions had been laid in the numerous struggles waged by the nascent capitalist class in the preceding centuries — prominently, the sixteenth century Reformation (which according to Engels, was ‘the first act of bourgeois revolution in Europe’), and the mid-seventeenth century English Revolution. The social and economic forces, and the political and intellectual tools for the bourgeois transformation of this period had thus prepared and ripened over the years.

However, the revolutions and transformations of this period also simultaneously led to the emergence of the forces destined to counter and overcome the bourgeoisie. The triumphant new system itself gave birth to the struggling proletariat, and it was during this period itself that, at least in Europe, the forces and ideas conceiving the death of capitalism were taking birth. Though then extremely weak, the modern proletariat and its ideology – Marxism – were the products of the period of the greatest revolutionary transformation of the bourgeoisie. Revolutionary socialist and communist ideology was born as a reaction to the dual revolution of this period. By 1848 it had been classically formulated in the Communist Manifesto.

The Industrial Revolution

The term ‘Industrial Revolution’ connotes the process by which, around the middle of the eighteenth century, for the first time in human history, the shackles were taken off the productive power of human societies, which henceforth became capable of the constant, rapid and apparently limitless multiplication of men, goods and services. No previous society had been able to break through the ceiling which a pre-industrial social structure, defective science and technology, and consequently periodic breakdown, famine and death, imposed on production. It is therefore that this sudden, qualitative and fundamental transformation which occurred basically in Britain, was referred to – first by the British and French socialists of the 1820s – as a revolution, the Industrial Revolution. It marked the transformation of society from the agricultural-mercantile basis of feudalism to the industrial basis of capitalism.

It brought about a tremendous expansion in the cotton textile, iron and coal industries, as also in the railways. This massive production was accompanied by a phenomenal growth of world trade, with Britain being supplied with raw materials from all parts of the world and in turn exporting its manufactured goods. A world market emerged and Britain became the ‘workshop of the world’. The figures for cotton textiles which was the main industry of the Industrial Revolution are indicative of the pace of change. The quantity of raw cotton imported into Britain rose from 11 million lbs. in 1785 to 588 million lbs. in 1850; the output of cloth from 40 million to 2,025 million yards. And this rapid increase was in direct comparison to the almost total stagnation under centuries of feudalism.

The Industrial Revolution was accelerated by the application of numerous inventions for expanding production in industry. However, this revolution broke out in Britain not because of its scientific and technological superiority. In fact, in respect of scientific knowledge, other countries, particularly France, were much ahead of Britain. It was the material conditions (economic and political) in Britain that allowed for the complete and unfettered growth of capitalism and thus determined that this would be the country of the Industrial Revolution. Britain was a country which had in 1649 itself experienced a bourgeois democratic revolution, where the first king had been formally tried and executed, and where private profit and economic development had become accepted as the supreme objects of government policy. It had already found a revolutionary solution of the agrarian problem. Farming was already predominantly for the market; manufacture had long been diffused throughout the feudal countryside. Agriculture was already prepared to carry out its three fundamental functions in an era of industrialisation: to increase production and productivity, so as to feed a rapidly rising non-agricultural population; to provide a large and rising surplus of potential recruits for the towns and industries; and to provide a mechanism for the accumulation of capital to be used in the more modern sectors of the economy. These internal factors, combined with colonial expansion that provided a world market, made Britain the mother country of the Industrial Revolution.

Though the Industrial Revolution originated in, and was for many years restricted to Britain, its effects were world-wide. The USA and most of the Western European economies followed the lead of the pioneering British industrialist and became advanced capitalist societies. The colonies and the semi-colonies on the other hand, were forced to become appendages of Britain, and to some extent the other industrialising countries. India was deindustrialised with the smashing of its handloom industry. A country which had for centuries exported textiles to the West was forced to become an importer of British cottons. By 1820 it imported 11 million yards, and by 1840 this figure grew to 145 million yards. Latin America similarly was forced to absorb 56 million yards by 1820, which increased to 279 million yards in 1840.

This tremendous expansion of industry and trade converted the capitalist class from a middle class (the literal meaning of the word ‘bourgeoisie’ is middle class), into a class of industrial millionaires - the modern industrial bourgeoisie. A class which so far had only modest means as compared to the feudal lords acquired riches unimaginable before the Industrial Revolution. Though the feudals continued to be the richest individuals in most countries, it was the bourgeoisie as a class, whose rapidly strengthening position in the economy, gave it the power to dictate terms within society. This class, which had since the sixteenth century, waged numerous major struggles at the philosophical, economic, political and military levels, began from this time onwards to achieve conclusive victory over the great feudal landowners - kings, popes, bishops, and nobles. In many countries bourgeois republics were set up and even where these republics were overthrown and monarchy restored, the modern bourgeois class succeeded in maintaining a controlling position in the state and society.

The French Revolution

The period of revolutionary and often violent capture of state power by the bourgeoisie had started from the sixteenth century itself with the first bourgeois revolution in Holland towards the end of that century and then the English Revolution of 1649. Another significant revolution was that of the USA in 1776. However it was the French Revolution of 1789 that had the most far reaching impact. If the economy of the nineteenth-century world was formed mainly under the influence of the British Industrial Revolution, its politics and ideology were formed mainly by the French. Britain provided the model for its railways and factories, the economic substance which opened the traditional economic and social structures of the world; but France made its revolutions and gave the ideas that largely governed European and even world politics. France provided the issues of liberal and radical-democratic politics for most of the world. France provided the concept and the first great example of nationalism. The ideology of the modern world first penetrated ancient civilisations through French influence.

The French Revolution occurred in the most powerful and populous state of Europe and was a mass social revolution that was immensely more radical than the other revolutions of the time. Further, of all contemporary revolutions it alone attempted to spread and universalise its ideals. Its armies set out to revolutionise the world; its ideas actually did so. The direct impact of its ideas was felt as far away as India, as also in the Islamic world. Its indirect influence is universal, for it provided the pattern for all subsequent revolutionary movements, its lessons being even included into modern socialism and communism.

The French Revolution started as an agitation for constitutional reforms by the bourgeoisie. This coincided with a severe economic and social crisis of 1788-1789 to convert it into a mass upsurge first of the urban poor and then of the revolutionary peasantry. The key event of the Revolution was the storming of the state prison - the Bastille - on July 14th, 1789 by the revolutionary masses of Paris. It was the signal for the spreading of the revolution to the provincial towns and the countryside. Within a space of three weeks a wave of uprisings throughout the countryside had smashed the social structure of French rural feudalism, as well as much of the state machine of royal France. Feudal privileges were soon officially removed, though it was only in the later more radical phase of the Revolution in 1793 that feudalism was finally abolished. In August 1789 was adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens which though against all noble privileges was not in favour of a democratic and egalitarian society. It provided for social distinctions on the ‘grounds of common utility’, and a natural right to private property was recognised. The earlier period of the Revolution up to 1791 was led by the moderate sections of the bourgeoisie which introduced massive reforms in the interests of the bourgeoisie under a system of constitutional monarchy. However when foreign intervention to try and restore the French king’s powers led to war in1792, the state passed into the hands of a much more radical section of the bourgeoisie - represented by the Jacobins. They abolished the monarchy and set up a republic which granted the people universal suffrage, the right of insurrection, and the right to work or maintenance. All remaining feudal privileges were taken away without compensation and slavery was abolished in the French colonies. Though the Jacobin Republic introduced many measures favouring the urban and rural poor, it however proved too radical for the bourgeoisie. When the difficulties of war alienated a section of the popular support for it the main leaders of the Republic like Robespierre and others were overthrown and executed in 1794. The army which was growing in power through the victories in the wars soon became the most powerful arm of the state. This led to the emergence and consolidation of the rule of Napoleon who was the army’s most successful General. Under his leadership the French army achieved victory over almost the whole of Europe, except Russia and Britain. His rule continued up to his defeat in 1813-15.

One very important consequence of the French Revolution - whether direct or indirect - was the abolition of feudalism over almost the whole of Europe. Over most of Latin Europe (Spain and Italy), the Low Countries (Belgium and Holland), Switzerland and Western Germany the abolition of feudalism was the work of the French conquering armies, or of native liberals who co-operated with them or were inspired by them. In North-western Germany and the Illyrian Provinces like Croatia and Slovenia, French reforms began or continued the legal revolution against feudalism. In Prussia too the influence of the French Revolution was decisive for the emancipation of the peasants. Thus, the actual legal steps to secure bourgeois systems of landed property were taken mostly between 1789 and 1812. However their implementation was most effective in France and its adjoining areas. In other areas implementation was slowed down by the reactionaries after Napoleon’s defeat and actually came into practice where liberalism representing the bourgeoisie was strong enough and where there existed an active body of middle class buyers to take over the lands.

The Bourgeois Democratic Revolutions

The process of the world-wide victory of capitalism was naturally marked by a series of successful and unsuccessful attempts of the bourgeoisie to seize power. The period after the defeat of the Napoleonic armies from 1815, right up to 1848 was marked by a number of bourgeois revolutions, primarily centred in the Western world - Europe and the Americas. The first wave of revolutions occurred in 1820-24. In Europe the revolutions took place in Spain (1820), Naples (1820) and Greece (1821). The first two were suppressed, but the Greek Revolution, which started as a mass insurrection, continued for a decade as a struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. It united the Greek nation and its struggle became an inspiration for international liberalism and the rallying point for the European left wing during the 1820s. The Spanish Revolution, though suppressed, led to the revival of the liberation movements in Latin America. It led by 1822 to the independence of Spanish America i.e. ‘Great Colombia’ (including present day Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador), Argentina, Chile and Peru. In 1821 Mexican independence was established, and in 1822 Brazil seceded from Portugal.

The second wave of revolutions (1829-34) affected Europe much more deeply. The crucial point in this wave was the overthrow in 1830 of the French Bourbon monarchy (established after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815). Though the revolution was defeated and did not result in the setting up of a republic, it led to the establishment of a constitutional monarch, Louis Philippe, with the support of bankers and the financial aristocracy. The French uprising aroused the peoples in various other parts of Europe. Belgium won independence from the Dutch in 1830, Poland fought resolutely for two years before being suppressed militarily, agitations covered parts of Italy and Germany, liberalism won in Switzerland, and civil war between liberals and clerics broke out in Spain and Portugal. Britain too experienced the Catholic Emancipation of Ireland in 1829 and the French influenced electoral reform agitation leading up to the Reforms Act of 1832.

The net result of this revolutionary wave of 1830 was that it marked the conclusive defeat of aristocratic power by bourgeois power in Western Europe. The ruling class came to be that of the big bourgeoisie of bankers, big industrialists and sometimes top civil servants, who were on the one hand accepted by the aristocracy who agreed to promote bourgeois policies, and on the other hand harassed from the outside by the agitations of the lesser and unsatisfied businessmen, the petty-bourgeoisie and the early labour movements.

1830 was a crucial turning point. It marked the beginning of the decades of crisis in the development of the new society which led up to the earthshaking events of the ‘Continental Revolution’ wave of 1848. 1830 was also of crucial importance in another more long-term sense. It marked the emergence of the working-class as an independent and self-conscious force in politics in Britain and France.

Conditions of the Proletariat

The Industrial Revolution which brought untold riches to the bourgeoisie only resulted in the most savage exploitation of the worker. The new inventions in machinery did not mean any relief or benefit for the worker. It only meant the lengthening of the working day and the wholesale use of women and children in the mills and factories. Children from the age of six onwards were forced to work fourteen to sixteen hours in the British spinning mills. Women were also employed in large numbers. In fact out of all the workers in the English cotton mills in 1834-47 about one-quarter were adult men, over half women and girls and the rest were boys below the age of eighteen. This large scale employment of women and children helped the capitalist to get cheaper labour, as well as better control the workers. At the same time the full force of the law was used to impose a brutal discipline on the workers. Harsh anti-union laws prevailed in all countries in the period of initial industrial growth. When these were relaxed to some extent, as in England in 1824, their place was taken by strict disciplinary laws like the British Master and Servant code of 1823. It punished the workers by prison for breaches of contract, but hardly had any provision against the employer except the rarely used minor fine.

The main method however of controlling the workers was by ensuring that the wage was so low that the worker would have to slog throughout the week in order to make a minimum income. Thus, according to the employers, "poverty was a guarantee of good behaviour". This poverty was ensured by direct wage-cutting and the competition of the machine. Thus the weekly wage of the handloom weaver of Bolton (in Britain) reduced from 33s. in 1795 to 14s. in 1815 to a net income of 4s. 11/2d. in 1829-34. In 1833, 10,000 of the 12,000 workers in the Glasgow cotton mills earned less than 11s. a week. In 131 of the 152 Manchester mills average weekly wages were less than 12s. a week. The wages and work conditions in the new factories of France and western Germany were, if anything, worse; and Belgium was, according to Marx, ‘the paradise of the capitalists’.

Working Class Consciousness and Proletarian Organisations

The living and working conditions of the industrial proletariat were such that rebellion was not merely possible, but virtually compulsory. Nothing was more inevitable in the first half of the nineteenth century than the appearance of labour and socialist movements, and of mass social unrest. The labour movement provided an answer to the poor man’s cry. It must however not be confused with the mere collective revulsion against intolerable hardship. What was new in the labour movement of the early nineteenth century was class consciousness and class ambition. The ‘poor’ no longer faced the ‘rich’. A specific class, the labouring class, the workers, or proletariat, faced another, the employers or capitalists. The French Revolution gave this new class confidence, the Industrial Revolution impressed on it the need for permanent mobilisation. A decent livelihood could not be achieved merely by the occasional protest. It required the eternal vigilance, organisation and activity of the ‘movement’ - the trade union, the mutual or co-operative society, the working-class institute, newspaper or agitation. Further the continuous process of social change that dominated the period encouraged the workers to think in terms of an entirely changed society, based on their experience and ideas as opposed to that of their oppressors. It would be co-operative and not competitive, collectivist and not individualist. It would be ‘socialist’. And it would be not just the eternal dream of a free society, but a permanent, practicable alternative to the present system.

Working-class consciousness in this sense did not yet exist in 1789, or indeed during the French Revolution. Outside Britain and France it barely existed even in 1848. But in the two countries which personified the dual revolution, it came into existence between 1815 and 1848, and more especially around 1830.

Before this there had been struggles of the workers but they were mostly in the form of spontaneous outbursts that lacked a long-term perspective and consciousness. Examples of these were the actions of the Luddite machine-breakers against British textiles in 1810-11. There had also been organisations of the workers. In fact trade unions in Britain were formed as early as 1752. But these pioneer unions were chiefly groupings of skilled workers. It was only around 1818 that attempts were first made in Britain to link all labouring men together in ‘general trades unions’, i.e. to break through the sectional and local isolation of particular groups of workers to the national, and even the universal solidarity of the labouring class. It was also the period when the first worker demonstrations and uprisings had to face the armed might of the state - in London in 1816, and the much larger struggle in Manchester in 1819 where ten workers were killed and several hundred injured. The movement for building a national union however picked up intense momentum between 1829 and 1834 under the leadership of Robert Owen, the utopian socialist. The National Association for the Protection of Labour was set up in 1830. It was followed by the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union of 1833-34 under the presidentship of Robert Owen. It had a membership of around 500,000. Attempts were also made to organise co-operatives of workers and convert the trade unions into national unions of co-operatives, but this did not meet with success.

In 1837, the great Chartist movement was launched, which according to Lenin, was ‘the first broad, truly mass and politically organised proletarian revolutionary movement’. Its six point Charter demanded universal suffrage for men, equal electoral districts, annual Parliaments, payment of Parliamentary members, secret ballot, and no property qualifications for Members of Parliament. Its chief aim was to win political rights for the working class. It employed the means of mass petitions with over 5 million signatures, and of mass meetings and demonstrations, some with as many as 350,000 people. It had a regular weekly newspaper, the Northern Star. When the demands were rejected by the bourgeois Parliament, the workers began in many places to strike and go into insurrection. However the movement was severely suppressed and died out by 1850.

In other parts of the capitalist world the workers’ organisation and movement did not take on such a widespread form. This was partly because of the brutal laws to control the workers in these countries, but mainly because the level of industrialisation had nowhere advanced as far as in Britain. In the USA trade unions grew in the 1820s and a centre was set up in the form of the National Trades Union between 1834 and 1837. In France, Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Germany and other European countries the workers were mainly organised in mutual benefit societies and co-operatives. Some of these were highly organised. An example was the community of Lyons (France) silk-workers, which played an important role in the insurrections of these workers in 1831 and again in 1834. An important role was also played by the underground revolutionary political circles of workers in France. Another similar struggle in 1844 was the uprising of the handloom linen-weavers of Silesia who were being pushed into impoverishment and starvation due to the competition of British cotton goods. The struggle had an immense influence on the young Marx.

Despite the spread of working class consciousness and organisation, the proletariat in this period did not as yet pose a threat to the social order. Its struggles like the Lyons insurrections or the Chartist movement yet lacked the organisation and maturity to advance towards revolution. However the emergence of the proletariat as an independent class force, as a material social force, was an event of world historical significance. It represented the birth of the force destined to challenge and overcome the then all-conquering bourgeoisie. The coming into material existence of the proletariat also meant simultaneously the birth of the ideas representing this new revolutionary class. Many ideas and theories claiming to represent working class interests came into being. And among them was Marxism, the ideology which was in the coming years to prove to be the only true proletarian ideology; the ideology capable of integrating with the proletariat, of building its revolutionary organisations, and of guiding it to victory over the bourgeoisie.



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