Worth Reading for April 13, 2010
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Democracy and Its Vicissitudes in the Nineteenth Century: A Note

The Communists--no, there were no Communists as we have known them before 1917, say rather that wing of the nineteenth-century socialists who were to become the organizational and intellectual ancestors of the twentieth century economists Communists--had a very uneasy relationship with democracy. Democracy in theory--as a part of the post-capitalist utopia-to-be when the New Jerusalem descended to earth, and as they claimed was prefigured in the operations of the 1870-1871 Paris Commune--was wonderful. Really existing democratic politics was not. You can see the problem arise in Friedrich Engels's 1890 preface to the Communist Manifesto:

Communist Manifesto (Preface): When the European workers had again gathered sufficient strength for a new onslaught upon the power of the ruling classes, the International Working Men’s Association came into being. Its aim was to weld together into one huge army the whole militant working class of Europe and America. Therefore it could not set out from the principles laid down in the Manifesto. It was bound to have a programme which would not shut the door on the English trade unions, the French, Belgian, Italian, and Spanish Proudhonists, and the German Lassalleans. This programme... was drawn up by Marx with a master hand [as was] acknowledged even by the Bakunin and the anarchists.... Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion. The events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the successes, could not but demonstrate to the fighters the inadequacy of their former universal panaceas, and make their minds more receptive to a thorough understanding of the true conditions for working-class emancipation...

The workers are supposed to organize, lobby, vote, agitate, and strike for higher wages, better working conditions, more political voice, government regulation of industry, and an egalitarian distribution of income and wealth. The struggle will weld them into a single conscious movement. And they are supposed to lose. And when they lose--so Marx's and Engels's plan for world history went--they will recognize that the system cannot be successfully managed or changed or ameliorated but must be overthrown, be transformed, be superseded.

But what if they did not lose but won instead? And what if those victories did not strengthen but weakened working-class consciousness as a single group with common interests? And what if those victories convinced more and more peopke that the system could be worked within, and did not need to be overthrown? What then?

Well, then you get:

Engels of Laura Lafargue: September 11, 1892: Here we have had a very important event... the [Brirtish] Trades Unions Congress deliberately rejected the invitation to the Zurich Congress.... The English workmen are so deeply infected with the Parliamentary spirit of compromise that they cannot do a step in advance without at the same time taking 3/4 or 7/8 of a step backwards. Thus the sudden awakening of the Eight Hours enthusiasm (3 years ago considered an impossibility, you know, by the very people who now clamour loudest after it) has almost succeeded in giving a reactionary character to that cry. It is to be the universal panacea, the one thing to be thought of. In their exultation at having secured so soon such a large and unexpected majority, the mass of the 8 hours men now sacrifice everything that goes further, to the newly-converted “Old” Unionists. This massacre of the Socialist Innocents is submitted to all the easier as the “New” elements are divided, without general organisation, personally unknown to each other, and have not as yet had the time to develop men enjoying the confidence of all; as you know, this can only be obtained here in Britain by what Ruge... called the force of constant appearance, the effect of hawking your own person constantly for years before the public, teste Shipton, Cremer, Howell, etc...

And:

Engels to Sorge: May 17, 1893: The May First demonstration here was very nice; but is already becoming somewhat of an everyday or rather an annual matter; the first fresh bloom is gone. The narrow-mindedness of the Trades Council and of the Socialist sects — Fabians and the S.D.F. — again compelled us to hold two demonstrations...

And:

Engels to Plekhanov: 1894: Here things are moving, though slowly and in zigzags. Take for instance Mawdsley, the leader of the Lancashire textile workers. He’s a Tory: in politics a Conservative and in religion a devout believer. Three years ago these gentry were violently opposed to the eight-hour day, today they vehemently demand it. In a quite recent manifesto Mawdsley, who last year was a fierce opponent of any separate policy for the working class, declared that the textile workers must take up the question of direct representation in Parliament, and a Manchester labour newspaper calculated that the Lancashire textile workers might control twelve seats in Parliament in this county alone. As you see, it is the Trade Union that will enter Parliament. It is the branch of industry and not the class that demands representation. Still, it is a step forward. Let us first smash the enslavement of the workers to the two big bourgeois parties, let us have textile workers in Parliament just as we already have miners there. As soon as a dozen branches of industry are represented class consciousness will arise of itself. The height of comedy is reached in this manifesto when Mawdsley demands bimetallism to maintain the supremacy of English cotton fabrics on the Indian market. One is indeed driven to despair by these English workers with their sense of imaginary national superiority, with their essentially bourgeois ideas and viewpoints, with their “practical” narrow-mindedness, with the parliamentary corruption which has seriously infected the leaders. But things are moving none the less. The only thing is that the “practical” English will be the last to arrive, but when they do arrive their contribution will weigh quite heavy in the scale.

And... well, this is too long, so I will put it on the botttom.[1]

Even though by 1890 it was pretty clear that things were not going according to their plan, Engels was very loath to admit in public that things were not going according to plan:

Marx was right. The working class of 1874... was altogether different from that of 1864.... Proudhonism in the Latin countries, and the specific Lassalleanism in Germany, were dying out; and even the ten arch-conservative English trade unions were gradually approaching the point where, in 1887, the chairman of their Swansea Congress could say in their name: “Continental socialism has lost its terror for us”... continental socialism was almost exclusively the theory heralded in the Manifesto... it is doubtless the most widely circulated, the most international product of all socialist literature, the common programme of many millions of workers of all countries from Siberia to California....

In 1847... socialists... the Owenites in England and the Fourierists in France... mere sects... manifold types of social quacks who wanted to eliminate social abuses through their various universal panaceas and all kinds of patch-work, without hurting capital and profit... looked for support rather to the “educated” classes. The section of the working class... demanded a radical reconstruction of society, convinced that mere political revolutions were not enough... rough-hewn, only instinctive and frequently somewhat crude....

“Working men of all countries, unite!” But few voices responded when we proclaimed these words to the world 42 years ago, on the eve of the first Paris Revolution in which the proletariat came out with the demands of its own. On September 28, 1864, however, the proletarians of most of the Western European countries joined hands in the International Working Men’s Association of glorious memory. True, the International itself lived only nine years. But that the eternal union of the proletarians of all countries created by it is still alive and lives stronger than ever, there is no better witness than this day. Because today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: the standard eight-hour working day to be established by legal enactment, as proclaimed by the Geneva Congress of the International in 1866, and again by the Paris Workers’ Congress of 1889. And today’ s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed.

If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!

By the time you are thinking like Engels was thinking in the early 1890s you are well on the road to Lenin and Stalin...


[1] Here it is:

And:

Friedrich Engels (1890), "May 4 in London," Arbeiter Zeitung: The May Day celebration of the proletariat was epoch-making not only in its universal character, which made it the first international action of the militant working class.... Towards the beginning of last year the world’s largest and most wretched working-class district, the East End of London, stirred gradually to action. On April 1, 1889, the Gas Workers’ and General Labourers’ Union was founded; today it has a membership of some 100,000. Largely with the cooperation of this partner union (many are gas workers in winter and dock workers in summer), the dockers’ big strike started on its way and shook even the bottom-most section of the East London workers out of stagnation. As a result, trade union upon trade union began to form among these, mostly unskilled workers.... Last autumn the Gas Workers won an eight-hour working day here in London, but lost it again, after an unhappy strike, in the southern part of the city, acquiring sufficient proof that this gain is by no means safe in the northern part either. Is it surprising, then, that they readily accepted Mrs. Aveling’s proposal to hold the May Day celebration, decided on by the Paris Congress, in favour of a legalised eight-hour working day, in London? In common with several socialist groups, the Radical clubs and the other trade unions in the East End, they set up a Central Committee that was to organise a large demonstration for the purpose in Hyde Park....

To ensure that, as far as possible, all London workers took part, the Central Committee invited, with uninhibited naivete, the London Trades Council as well. This is a body made up of delegates from the London trades unions, mostly from the older corporations of “skilled” workers, a body in which, as might be expected, the anti-socialist elements still command a majority. The Trades Council saw that the movement for an eight-hour day threatened to grow over its head. The old trades unions stand likewise for an eight-hour working day, but not for one to be established by law. By an eight-hour day they mean that normal daily wages should be paid for eight hours — so-and-so much per hour — but that overtime should be allowed any number of hours daily, provided every overtime hour is paid at a higher rate — say, at the rate of one and a half or two ordinary hours. The point therefore was to channel the demonstration into the fairway of this kind of working day, to be won by “free” agreement but certainly not to be made obligatory by parliamentary act. To this end the Trades Council allied itself with the Social-Democratic Federation of the above-mentioned Mr. Hyndman, an association which poses as the only true church of British socialism, which had very consistently concluded a life-and-death alliance with the French Possibilists and sent a delegation to their congress and which therefore regarded in advance the May Day celebration decided on by the Marxist Congress as a sin against the Holy Ghost....

Now the new allies, strange bedfellows though they were, played a trick on the Central Committee which would, it is true, be considered not only permissible but quite skillful in the political practice of the British bourgeoisie, but which European and American workers will probably find very mean.... The Central Committee had not yet made the announcement; but the organisations allied against it had scarcely heard the news when they announced a meeting in the Park for May 4 and obtained permission for seven platforms, doing it behind the backs of the Central Committee. The Trades Council and the Federation... called a meeting of delegates... informed them that only trades unions, that is to say, no socialist unions or political clubs, could take part in the demonstration and carry banners.... The Council had already edited the resolution to be submitted to the meeting, and had deleted from it the demand for a legalised eight-hour day; discussion on a proposal for putting that demand back in the resolution was not allowed, nor was it voted on. And lastly, the Council refused to accept Mrs. Aveling as a delegate because, it said, she was no manual worker (which is not true), although its own President, Mr. Shipton, had not moved a finger in his own trade for fully fifteen years.

The workers on the Central Committee were outraged... the demonstration had been finally put into the hands of two organisations representing only negligible minorities of London workers.... Then Edward Aveling went to the Ministry and secured, contrary to regulations, permission for the Central Committee as well to bring seven platforms to the Park. The attempt to juggle with the demonstration in the interest of the minority failed; the Trades Council pulled in its horns and was glad to be able to negotiate with the Central Committee on an equal footing over arrangements for the demonstration.

One has to know this background to appreciate the nature and significance of the demonstration. Prompted by the East End workers who had recently joined in the movement, the demonstration found such a universal response that the two organisations — which were no less hostile to each other than both of them together were to the fundamental idea of the demonstration — had to ally themselves in order to seize the leadership and use the meeting to their own advantage... a conservative Trades Council preaching equal rights for capital and labour... a Social-Democratic Federation playing at radicalism... the two allied to do a mean trick with an eye to capitalising on a demonstration thoroughly hateful to both.... [T]he May 4 meeting was split into two parts. On one side were the conservative workers, whose horizon does not go beyond the wage-labour system, flanked by a narrow-minded but ambitious socialist sect; on the other side, the great bulk of workers who had recently joined in the movement and who do not want to hear any more of the Manchesterism of the old trades unions and want to win their complete emancipation by themselves, jointly with allies of their own choice, and not with those imposed by a small socialist coterie.

On one side was stagnation represented by trades unions that have not yet quite freed themselves from the guild spirit, and by a narrow-minded sect... on the other, the living free movement of the reawakening British proletariat... it was apparent even to the blindest where there was fresh life in that two-faced gathering and where stagnation. Around the seven platforms of the Central Committee were dense, immense crowds, marching up with music and banners, over a hundred thousand in the procession.... At the platforms of the combined reactionaries, on the other hand, everything seemed dull; their procession was much weaker than the other, poorly organised, disorderly and mostly belated....

What the numerous onlooking bourgeois politicians took home with them as the overall effect was the certainty that the English proletariat, which for fully forty years had trailed behind the big Liberal party and served it as voting cattle, had awakened at last... on May 4, 1890, the English working class joined the great international army.... The English proletariat.... Its long slumber — a result, on the one hand, of the failure of the Chartist movement of 1836-50 and, on the other, of the colossal industrial upswing of 1848-80 — is finally broken...

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