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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Summer School Lectures - June 2007, Working Class History

Interest in Working Class history has largely been displaced by a growth in the history of identity politics leading to a perceived integration of excluded groups into a pluralistic, culturally diverse and conflict free capitalism. There are now taught subjects at university level as diverse as Black History, Sexuality and Gender Studies and so on. Although these cultural studies often contain interesting insights what they all lack is grounding in class and historical analysis around the class relationship of the ownership or exclusion of the means of production and distribution. In short, they are academically and politically safe.

A contemporary criticism of Marx’s theory of class is given by the historian Professor Sir David Cannadine one-time Professor of Oxford and Princeton University but now part of a group of academics who have set-up a private university in London at £18,000 a year per student. In the bi-centenary of the publication of the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO Professor Cannadine wrote an article in THE FINANCIAL TIMES under the heading Stop Being a Nation of Class Worriers. Professor Cannadine believed that it was only the English who were obsessed with the issue of class, summed up by the poet John Betjeman as: “that topic all absorbing, as it was, is now and ever shall be, to us - CLASS”.

Sir David Cannadine, it should be re-called, was one of a group of historians – most of whom were Tory – who were invited to a dinner reception at Downing Street by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair in June 2008, to meet President G. W. Bush both of whom were worried about their place in history following the debacle of the Iraq war. Cannadine was knighted by Blair in 2009 for services to history and helped set up a History and Policy Unit to advise governments in the administration of capitalism.

Cannadine attacked Marx, through E.P. Thompson, for holding the belief that the past and present were a battleground where classes came into being, realised their collective identity and struggled with each other for dominance. He failed to ask the question why Marx believed this to be so.

Cannadine claimed that over the past 20 years:

Marx’s account has been largely discredited, and few scholars today believe English history was a perpetual conflict between warring collective groups”.

Who has discredited Marx? Which scholars? Professor Cannadine does not say.

He then went on to say:

For Marx was in error in oversimplifying the historical process and in over-simplifying class.” (FINANCIALTIMES 30th October 1998 and 1st November 1998)


During the mid-19th century Marx and Engels mistakenly tried to universalise the contemporary struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat or capital and labour” (ibid)

Cannadine tried to give his assertions in his newspaper article some degree of intellectual rigour in a number of published books; “CLASS IN BRITAIN” (1998), “HISTORY IN OUR TIME” (1998) and THE RISE AND FALLOF CLASS (1998). All three books continued his attack on Marx’s use of class as an analytical tool to understand capitalism. And it says something of the current low level of interest in Marx that these three books have not been subject to any detailed criticism and rebuttal.

Class Struggle in the 18th Century.

Cannadine claimed, for example, that in the eighteenth century there was no “working class” in part because: “Karl Marx was not alive and around to tell them this was who they were and what they were doing” (Class in Britain, 1998, p.24). He went on to say that “Marxists” were never at ease “with the eighteenth century” (p.24).

This is an extraordinary statement. Workers were striking for wages and better working conditions long before Marx came on to the scene. Even in the early 19th century silk-weavers in Lyon went on strike in 1831 for higher wages and workers had formed the Chartist movement in Britain several years prior to Marx writing the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in 1848. Cannadine believes that class-consciousness has to attach itself to the conscious actions of a class. Marx denied this. Workers were forced to take action against employers and their State, long before they were conscious as a class of doing so. Marx often quoted Goethe in this respect: “In the beginning was the deed” (Faust).

In fact Marx made the following observation about the class struggle in the 18th century. In a speech on 19th April 1856 at the Anniversary of the Chartist’s PEOPLE'S PAPER he said:

I know the heroic struggles the English working class have gone through since the middle of the last century – (that is the middle of the 18th century) – struggle [no] less glorious because they are shrouded in obscurity and burked (slang for removed) by the middle-class historian” (quoted from SURVEYS FROM EXILE: POLITICAL WRITINGS VOL. 2, ed., D. Fernbach, Penguin, p. 300 1981).

So much for Marx “not being at ease” with the 18th century, on the contrary, his comment, quoted above, shows someone who is certainly aware of the “heroic struggles” of the working class from the 1750’s onwards. And let us not forget that when Marx’s friend, Frederick Engels was working in Manchester in the early 1840’s, many of the workers whom he associated with, had radical Owenite and Chartist backgrounds, children and grandchildren of 18th century workers who had passed down the generations an oral tradition of resistance and class struggle.

As for the workers not knowing who they were in the 18th century, why was there a collective resistance to the 1799 Combination Act? On 12th July, 1799, the government passed the Combination Act, whereby all contracts involving an advance of wages or a reduction of hours of work were declared: "illegal, null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever”. However this Act was only a culmination of a series of legislation used throughout the 18th century against workers combining into unions or striking for higher wages. Workers had set up combinations or trade unions almost immediately they became wages slaves.

Clearly there was an working class struggling against their employers and State. This working class was not a figment of Marx’s imagination, but a real historical subject, men and women struggling against the harsh economic circumstances they faced (For a useful account of the Combination Law see THE TOWN LABOURER 1760-1832: THE NEW CIVILISATION, J. L Hammond and B. Hammond, Chapter VII The War on the Trade Unions pp. 112 -142 1917 and in Thompson loc cit pp. 546 -565).

In fact, the use of the word “strike” for “withdraw of labour” first appeared in 1768, when sailors, in support of demonstrations in London, "struck" or removed the square rigged sails or topgallant (pronounced t’gallant) sails of merchant ships at port, thus crippling the ships. And the word “strike” is first recorded in the ANNUAL REGISTER (1768) where it is written: “This day the hatters struck, and refused to work till their wages are raised” ( So the word “strike” appeared 80 years before Marx wrote the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO.

In Day and Lunn's THE HISTORY OF WORK AND LABOUR RELATIONS IN THE ROYAL DOCKYARDS (1999), the authors report that the standing orders of the Royal Navy Board for August 1739 included this ruling: "Shipwrights to be allowed to bring [chips] on their shoulders near to the dock gates, there to be inspected by officers". The permission to remove surplus timber for firewood or building material was a substantial perk of the job for the dock workers. A subsequent standing order, in May 1753, ruled that only chips that could be carried under one arm were allowed to be removed. This limited the amount of timber that could be taken and the shipwrights were not happy about the revoking of their previous benefit. Three years later, for this and other reasons, they went on strike. Thus the expression: “having a chip on your shoulder” for some form of grievance.

Here is another example of a strike in the 18th century; the Weavers Strike in Glasgow, Scotland in 1787 taken from an essay by the historian Gordon Adams ( Adams states that there were, at the end of the 18th century, more than 20,000 weavers in the West of Scotland. Increased competition reduced income and a crisis was reached with the importation of cheaper textiles, especially from India causing a fall in prices forcing the manufacturers to reduce the price they were prepared to pay the weavers for their work. Following two significant reductions in wages weavers felt that they could not live on the pay offered by the manufacturers and it was agreed that no work would be accepted at the new prices. The dispute reached a climax on 3rd September, 1787 when a crowd of weavers gathered in Calton and, seized materials from those still working. The Lord Provost of Glasgow and other town authorities went to the village and attempted to disperse the weavers without success. Then a detachment troops forced the strikers to retreat. When the strikers marched again and threw their missiles, the soldiers opened fire. Three demonstrators were killed immediately and others were wounded, three fatally. The strike was crushed and one of the organisers of the strike was whipped through the streets of the City of Glasgow.

The first evidence of formal union organization in the trades is a handwritten book of articles of the Friendly Society of Tin Plate Workers of London, dated January 1798. Another Tin Plate Workers' Society was formed in Wolverhampton in 1802. This provides another example of local trade unions being set-up in the period of illegal formation of combinations between 1799 and 1825.

In 1819 the Wolverhampton Tin Plate Workers went on strike during one of the first recorded trade depressions in British capitalism shortly after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The strike was repressed by the State using the recently formed Bow Street Runners who raided the rooms occupied by striking workers. The workers were arrested and charged with “conspiracy”, a capital offence at the time (SOCIALISMIN BIRMINGHAM AND THE BLACK COUNTRY 1850 – 1939, George J. Barnsby p. 3 1998 – the book contains one condescending reference to the SPGB as being “Socialistically pure” on page 125 in the book and p. 116 in the on-line copy).

And in his book, WILKES AND LIBERTY (ch. VI, Industrial unrest pp. 90 – 104), the historian, George Rudé gives several accounts of strikes by workers for higher wages in the 1760’s.

Not all defenders of capitalism were unsympathetic to the plight of early trade unionists even though they were against combinations. Ironically Adam Smith in the WEALTH OF NATIONS (1778) made the following remark on combinations. This is what Smith wrote:

We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of workmen. But whoever imagines, upon this account that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject. Masters are always and everywhere in a sort of tacit, but constant and uniform combination, not to raise the wages of labour above their actual rate… [When workers combine, masters] ... never cease to call aloud for the assistance of the civil magistrate, and the rigorous execution of those laws which have been enacted with so much severity against the combination of servants, labourers, and journeymen (Book I, Chapter 8, Chicago Press p.75-6 1976).

Marx and Class

So Professor Cannadine is wrong to deny that there was no class identity or class consciousness in the 18th century, rudimentary as it was. As the working class emerged out of Feudalism they were forced to form trade unions, forced to strike, whether illegal or not, and forced to enter into a class struggle with employers. But then he is also wrong about Marx and class.

Cannadine’s target is what he calls, the “dichotomous model of class” in which Marx divided society between two hostile groups, Capital and Labour. He believed the 20th century defied Marx’s so-called “model” except the period between 1906, with the establishment of the Labour Party and 1926, with the defeat of the General Strike (loc cit).

To begin with, Marx did not have a “model” of class. Marx begins his analysis of class much in the same way that he began his study of the commodity in CAPITAL not as an abstraction but as it appears to the senses. Marx was interested in why workers had to seek wages and how they were divorced from the means of production. Why, for example, did capitalists employ workers and for what reason? His theory of surplus value not only gave him answers to these questions but also explained why the class struggle under capitalism took shape the way it did.

Marx went on to show that class was a social relationship between capital and labour to the means of production; a capitalist class who owned the means of production and a working class excluded from owning the means of production.

Marx showed that the working class produced a surplus value over and above the value of their wages. In short, the worked a necessary labour time and a surplus labour time in which they did not get paid. Surplus value was the source of the capitalist’s profit and was distributed in the unearned incomes of rent, interest and profit.

The extraction of surplus value and its resistance by workers gave consciousness to the class struggle. That is why Marx was to write that the treatment of surplus value independently of rent interest and profit was one of “the best points in my book” (CAPITAL)” (MARX - ENGELS: SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE, Marx to Engels 24th August 1867 page 180 Moscow1975).

Class Struggle and Class Reaction

And what is Cannadine’s reason for believing that Marx’s theory of class only applied between the two arbitrary dates 1906 and 1926? None is given. The capitalist class owned the means of production and distribution to the exclusion of the working class majority prior to 1906, between 1906 and 1926 and after 1926.

It is true that there were severe industrial disputes between 1910 and 1914. The miners went on strike in 1910 for three months before being defeated. Another miners’ strike in Wales in 1910 was similarly defeated. Strikes took place at Southampton docks in 1911 and in the same year the four main railway unions also went on strike before obtaining a settlement with employers. And so the strikes went on until war broke out in 1914 but even though thousands of days were lost due to strikes there was no rise in political class consciousness even though there were strikes during that war – e.g. Red Clyde side)

The establishment of the Labour Party came out of a reaction to the class struggle and was not a development of it (see NEW LABOUR - A PARTY OF CAPITALISM, Socialist Party of Great Britain, no date). Trade Unions believed that capital could be tamed through reforms not revolution. The Labour Party was the political instrument to get these reforms - not to establish Socialism. Labour was, is and always will be a capitalist political party. From 1906 to 1914 the Labour Party competed with the Liberal party on reform measures before it joined with all three main political parties to support British Capitalism against Germany during the First World War.

As for the General Strike in 1926, this was a tactical failure by the trade unions, again a reaction to the assault by employers and their State against the economic interests of the working class at the time. The failure of the General Strike divided the working class; it caused a financial loss, costing the trade unions some £4m. And not only did the loss of the strike humiliate the trade unions but trade union membership fell from 5.5 million in 1926 to under 5 million in 1927 due to combination of job losses and demoralisation (MASTERING ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL HISTORY, David Taylor, p 533. 1988).

And how does Cannadine explain the establishment of the Socialist Party of Great Britain in 1904, the most important political manifestation of the class struggle during the last century? The Socialist Party of Great Britain is passed over in silence. But in 1904 class interest, class consciousness and socialist political action by the working class expressed itself in the formation of a Socialist Party with only Socialism as its object underpinned by a set of Socialist Principles.

Cannadine’s appears to believe that after 1926 the working class incorporated and accommodated itself within capitalism and no longer remained a “class” in the way Marx had formulated it in the 19th century. However, the low level of political understanding by workers still does not prevent the class struggle taking place, economically, on a day-to- day basis. The working class in Britain were no more or less class conscious in a Socialist sense, after 1926 than they were before. After all, between 1914 and 1918 millions of workers in Britain were killing or being killed on the battlefields of the First World War. Hardly a time of intense Socialist political activity, in fact, it was a time when many members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who had opposed the war on the grounds of class interest, were either on the run, hiding from the police or in prison.

Professor Cannadine is supposed to be a respected historian. Like most commentators he only views the class struggle from one direction. In whose interest did the Wilson government try to enact its anti-working class legislation, IN PLACE OF STRIFE in 1969? It was not the working class. Then there were the bitter struggles by workers in the 1970’s and 1980’s and the subsequent anti-trade union legislation by the Thatcher and Major Tory governments.

The class struggle is a two-way process. The class struggle is an economic struggle over the day-to-day exploitation of the working class given rise to trade unions and employers’ associations. And it is a political struggle over the ownership of the means of production and distribution. So, in whose benefit were these anti-working class laws passed? It was certainly not for the benefit of the working class and the trade unions. What of the anti-trade union propaganda by economists like F.A. Hayek? He wrote two anti-trade union tracts: A TIGER BY IT'S TAIL (1972) and 1980’s UNEMPLOYMENTS AND THE UNIONS (1974), both published by the free market Institute of Economic Affairs? They were written, like all academic economic theory and policy against the trade unions and working class.

The current reaction against Socialism and the ideas of Marx should not be underestimated. The politics of reformism has had a negative effect. It has hindered socialist efforts at explaining to workers the case for socialism while the anti-working class political programmes both of the British Labour Party and the Bolsheviks under Lenin and his successors have also served as a barrier to the spread of socialist ideas.

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