Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

The 1819 Peterloo Massacre

Fundamentals and Principles

In the SPGB’s DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES, the first five clauses were all derived directly from Marx - about the class struggle, social evolution and the active role of a revolutionary working class. These are all about why Socialism is needed. But the founding members of this party also stated clearly in 1904 why it was essential for the working class to organise as a political party so as to gain political power.

In those final clauses, about how this can be done, the SPGB explained why it was essential to gain control of the “machinery of government ... and the powers of government”, including the armed forces, so that these could be “converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation”. Much earlier, in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO (1848), Marx and Engels had argued clearly that:

Political power ... is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another.... [so] the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy ... the first step in the revolution by the working class is to ... win the battle of democracy.

Later, in the Preamble to the Rules of the First International (1861), Marx again emphasised clearly the need for a revolutionary, class-based, political organisation: “... the economical emancipation of the working classes is ... the great end to which every political movement ought to be subordinate as a means”.

Unfortunately the International and its successor, the Second International, abandoned this uncompromising position. The First International was vague about its objectives, and its successor was worse - openly reformist. In Britain the Social Democratic Federation was both reformist and opportunistic, and William Morris’s Socialist League also abandoned the Marxian strategy of political organisation and was soon taken over by anarchists.

So, at the start of the 20th century, the group of Marxist workers founding the SPGB were in opposition to all so-called ‘Social Democracy’ and ‘Labour’ parties as these were and still are set on the opportunist road to reform, not revolution. But we argue that if you aim for Socialism, you do not want to waste your time trying to reform capitalism - there are bigger fish to fry. And endless arguments about the merits of reforms would be hopelessly divisive. What Socialists want is the whole bakery, not just a larger slice of the loaf or even the whole loaf.

If this new Socialist Party was to survive and thrive, it had to be clear about how to achieve its objective - something the International had failed to do. It had to state clearly the need for an uncompromising, class-based, revolutionary, political party. That was not just respectable ‘ballot box fetishism’. Just as in the 19th century, there is an obvious practical need to gain control over the armed forces, police and other ‘coercive machinery of government’, to prevent these being used to protect the class system and the interests of the capitalist class by crushing the workers’ movement.

As for overthrowing the class system, the SPGB commented: “It is the workers’ political ignorance that keeps them where they are, and not the failure of political action” (SPGB, THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, 1948. p.21).

That is not just political dogma or ideology. There are many lessons from history to support our argument. Many bloody massacres have hammered home this lesson, again and again. For instance, in 1871 the ruthless crushing of the Paris Commune with men, women and children shot, then buried in mass graves, some still alive; in St Petersburg, 1905, mounted Cossack attacks on unarmed Russians; Soviet tanks in Budapest, 1956; attacks on anti-war protestors in Chicago, 1968; ‘Bloody Sunday’, 1972, when British soldiers shot at a peaceful demonstration in Derry, Northern. Ireland; Chinese tanks and troops crushing the ‘pro-democracy’ movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing; and in June 2019 over 100 demonstrators killed in Khartoum, Sudan - to name just a few.

So Peterloo in 1819 has to be seen as just one of a whole series of bloody events when, to defend their power and interests, governments’ organised armed forces were used against unarmed members of the working class. Again, the 1911 Liverpool transport strike was countered by soldiers used as blacklegs and by violent thuggish police:

No man could have gone through the Liverpool strike without having his eyes opened to the real existence of the military and the police. True to its traditions, the ‘Liberal’ government had slaughtered the people here as it had at Featherstone, Llanelli and elsewhere (Tom Mann, Memoirs - see Spokesmen for Liberty, ed. Lindsay and Rickword, 1941, p.380).

Just 20 years after Peterloo, Chartists in Newport, south Wales, were shot at from behind hotel shutters, with an estimated 11-53 killed. In terms of numbers, that 1839 ‘insurrection’ of 4,000 men was destroyed by a mere 30 soldiers, plus some special constables (Cole and Postgate THE COMMON PEOPLE, p.286).

The Amritsar Massacre, 1919

Another example of so-called civilisation came 100 years after Peterloo. In 1919 British soldiers shot at a crowd of about 20,000 unarmed Indians in a public park in the Sikh holy city, Amritsar. Many of these were there to support a political rally but most were simply enjoying a family day out.

General Dyer later told how on arrival, he took a mere 30 seconds to decide his troops were “in danger” from all these “armed men”, then gave the order to fire. As at Peterloo, the massacre was clearly planned in advance: the park’s gates had all been locked shut so there was no escape from the deadly volleys.

Again, as at Peterloo, the state’s armed forces claimed this massacre was done in “self-defence” - the version passed down in the official records. British history books were mostly silent on this incident.

But that British official version is contested (e.g. CHANNEL 4, documentary, 13 April 2019). Officially, no children were killed - actually 15 children were killed, aged from 6 months to 3 -12 years. It is estimated 500-600 people were killed, and 1000-1800 were wounded. Many were shot in the back as they tried to climb the high brick walls to escape. Those brick walls still show where the bullets hit.

That deadly violence by colonial forces was linked to previous incidents. Just 3 days before, in a time of riots and political protests, several British men had been killed so the British rulers were jittery, fearing a repeat of the 1867 Indian Mutiny.

Later, the Hunter Committee accepted at face value General Dyer’s excuse that it was “self-defence” when his troops shot unarmed people in a park. He also decreed a humiliating, racist, Crawling Order - in the Old City, Indians were ordered to crawl the length of the street. One recalled: “I lay on my belly - if I rose, I was hit by the butt end of a rifle”. And there were public floggings at a whipping post on the British Club’s tennis court.

That massacre, followed by collective punishment and racist humiliation, was defended by Winston Churchill as “a singular event” - it was not seen as racist and morally obscene. Even now, no British government has ever made a formal apology for that atrocity.

Class rule by force

More than once such violent incidents have gone down in history as Bloody Sunday, such as when police in 1887 violently attacked a Radical demonstration in Trafalgar Square - 3 were killed and hundreds injured (The Commonweal - see Spokesmen for Liberty, p. 361).

Just a few streets away, in Grosvenor Square, a 1960s anti-war demonstration was attacked by police and a young schoolteacher was killed. Again, in the 1984 miners’ strike, huge numbers of police were sent to the Yorkshire mining areas, and the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, an especially nasty case of state thuggery, was the result.

Another ‘Bloody Sunday’ went down in infamy. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, in Derry, a mainly Catholic / Nationalist city, a peaceful civil rights demonstration was fired on by soldiers whose officers claimed this was done in ‘self-defence’. As with Peterloo and Amritsar, the victims were unarmed. Such massacres were in no way a matter of ‘self-defence’. They were all acts of government policy.

In suppressing the 1871 Paris Commune, soldiers had fired indiscriminately, and the victims were buried in mass graves - some still alive, according to the eyewitness account of a TIMES reporter. Survivors were jailed or sent into remote exile, from which many never returned. In the historic centre of China’s capital city, on 4 June 1989, the students’ peaceful pro-democracy sit-in was crushed by tanks and troops, and all mention of this was and is treated as taboo. The incident has been buried and banned by the Chinese authorities, just as the 1871 Paris Commune victims had been buried by the French government.

Clearly, if the working class are ever to be able to overthrow the class system and establish Socialism, we need to be stronger and better organised politically than mere demonstrators and protesters. Socialists must be able to ensure that state forces cannot be used against our class struggle for emancipation. In short, we must be in a position to control these forces.

Obviously, the only way this can be done is by gaining political power and, with that, control over the machinery of government: the armed forces and the police, together with the judiciary, the law-courts and the jails. Only on the basis of a clear understanding of the class role of the state can we hope to win the “battle for democracy” and end class exploitation.

Peterloo, 1819 - what happened and why

In the early 19th century Manchester, like other new industrial cities of the North and Midlands, was growing fast. The rural people, driven off the land by enclosures, crowded into the industrialising cities where mills with new power-driven machinery were calling out for unskilled ‘hands’.

As power-looms and factories took over, thousands of handloom weavers were left destitute and starving. Desperate, some took to machine-breaking and in the countryside others took to rick-burning. Luddism and the ‘Captain Swing riots’ were countered by the harshest of punitive acts: the death penalty and transportation were common punishments, and even children were hanged. In 1812, Byron made a stinging protest in the House of Lords at the death penalty in the Framebreaking Bill:

These men never destroyed their looms till they were become useless - worse than useless; till they were become actual impediments to their exertions in obtaining their daily bread ... Their own means of subsistence were cut off: all other employments pre-occupied ... - Is there not blood enough upon your penal code? ... Will you erect a gibbet in every field? ... Are these the remedies for a starving and desperate populace?
See Spokesmen for Liberty, pp.236-7

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought hard times: wages fell but the price of bread was kept high by the Corn Laws and tariffs protecting the interests of the landowners. Both Cobbett and Byron wrote of how those landowners had all done very well for themselves as wartime had meant high grain prices and high rents. But post-war peace threatened all that:

The land self-interest groans from shore to shore,
For fear that plenty should attain the poor.
Up, up, again, ye rents! Exalt your notes,
Or else the ministry will lose their votes,
And patriotism, so delicately nice,
Her loaves will lower to the market-price.

Byron, THE AGE OF BRONZE - ibid., p.240

With the return to the gold standard, there was unemployment and hunger, with wages on average well below what they had been 10 years earlier, and paid police spies and informers kept the authorities informed about any expressions of discontent. Some even acted as agents provocateurs,, persuading workers to join up with fictitious revolts and becoming rich from others’ misery. Prosecutions relied wholly on their paid and perjured sworn evidence, as their lies stitched up unfortunates - for cash.

In 1816 in Spa Fields, London, a rally by Spenceans (for land nationalisation and the ‘single tax’) plus a Radical (pro-Reform) rally was followed by rioting and looting. The Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth, alarmed, claimed this indicated a general rising and the government suspended Habeas Corpus to allow for arbitrary jailing, without trial.

Sidmouth sent letters to all magistrates “urging them to the utmost severity in suppressing all forms of treason and sedition” and prepared the Gagging Acts of 1817. These banned all meetings, unless approved by the magistrates, and the Home Office and local magistrates hired spies and informers to report on any “seditious proceedings” (see Cole and Postgate THE COMMON PEOPLE 1746-1946, pp. 220-1).

The 1817 ‘March of the Blanketeers’ had assembled in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, before setting off to London with a petition for Reform and relief to the Prince Regent. These hunger-marchers were mostly unemployed handloom-weavers and spinners. But a joint force of soldiers and yeomanry broke up their meeting, their leaders were arrested, and few got as far as Derby (THE COMMON PEOPLE 1746-96, p. 222).

Class and politics - and those responsible for Peterloo

At national level, government policy was decided by politicians, many from the peerage, and MPs, selected by the powerful and elected only by the wealthy, landowners and property-owners. At regional or local level, government policy was implemented by the magistrates.

In government a key man was Lord Castlereagh, son of the Marquis of Londonderry, who was active in the Londonderry Militia when in 1798 it crushed an Irish rebellion. His career progressed fast: from an Irish MP to a London MP; from Whig to Tory in 1795; then in 1797 Irish Chief Secretary; later, as Secretary for War, negotiating the Congress of Vienna, he backed hereditary rulers and reactionary despots. Just months after Peterloo, he introduced the repressive Six Acts, harsher than the 1817 Act, and a real threat to any radical or reform journals. But in 1822 Castlereagh, unpopular and depressed, cut his throat.

In the Manchester area, the key man was Hulton, a tough Tory landowner with coal mines. In 1812, he had 12 men arrested for setting fire to a textile mill, and had 4 of these, including a 12-year-old boy, hanged. Any caught trying to form a trade union were transported, and the miners said his pits were the worst in the area to work in. He became High Sheriff of Lancashire in 1811, aged just 21, and by 1819 he was chairman of the Lancashire and Cheshire Magistrates. Other magistrates involved were landed gentry plus some Anglican clergy.

According to contemporary records by reporters and Samuel Bamford, one of the meeting’s organisers, preparations were made for an orderly, peaceful, well-organised event. Workers’ groups from around the district had practised assembling, marching in the hills with banners and bands. The organisers had invited a noted celebrity speaker, ‘Orator’ Hunt, to travel up from London to speak about parliamentary reform, and also had notified the police in advance. Care was taken to ensure this meeting would be peaceful: on their arrival, men’s walking-sticks were left at meeting-points, to be collected later, and loose stones were removed from the meeting place .

But the authorities had also made advance preparations and their forces were strategically deployed, hidden in back streets, yards and alleys, and surrounding the rally on all sides (cf. the London ‘kettling’ of the poll tax riot). In Samuel Bamford’s eye-witness account, he described the various forces deployed: first, the Manchester yeomanry, then the 15th Hussars and the Cheshire yeomanry armed with sabres, plus the 88th Foot, 4 pieces of Horse artillery and 200 special constables “so that a force for a thorough massacre was ready had it been wanted” (Passages from the Life of a Radical - see Spokesmen for Liberty, p.257). In a pamphlet he published soon after, he described and showed with a sketch map the positions of these various forces.

This and much material on Peterloo can be found on the Spartacus Education website, while Mike Leigh’s 2019 film PETERLOO is a masterpiece firmly rooted in the real history of the events.

The violence of Peterloo led to horror and anger: e.g. poems by Byron - “I have seen the people ridden o’er like sand / By slaves on horseback” (Don Juan) and Shelley - “I met Murder by the way, / He had a mask like Castlereagh” (THE MASK OF ANARCHY - Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester). The violence at Peterloo was not self-defence as it was planned in advance. And the state response to calls for reform was the reactionary Six Acts, aiming to shut down reform publications - Cobbett fled to America while Bamford was jailed.

Peterloo, and later Amritsar, Tiananmen Square, and many other massacres show clearly how ruthless the capitalists and their governments are when confronted by mass protests by workers. The lessons are clear. We know that workers are ruthlessly attacked and even massacred by state forces. To leave the army, police, judiciary etc, at the disposal of the ruthless exploiting class would be suicidal - utopian - folly.

Socialists argue it is absolutely essential for the working class to organise as a political party in order to gain control over how those forces are used. If we are to succeed one day, in building up a genuinely class-conscious movement working to achieve Socialism and the end of all class exploitation, this has to be an essential focus of our strategy. The bloody events of 1819 and 1919 and so many other instances serve as important warnings to us now. Whichever class controls the government, that party - that class - controls the armed forces and police, and decides their use and deployment in its own class interests.

No class ever gave up its power voluntarily. Lessons from past and present are clear, as Marx argued: “To conquer political power has become the great duty of the working classes” (Inaugural Address of the First International, 1864). Those who would seek to change society need to face up to this reality and join with us, committed Socialists, organising politically for Socialism, for “common ownership ... by and in the interest of the whole community”, and to put an end to all class exploitation.

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