Thursday, January 15, 2015

Peterloo: a Class Skirmish (1969)

From the May 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

At its May Day rally in Manchester this year the Labour party commemorates the 150th anniversary of the massacre of Peterloo. The Socialist Party of Great Britain denounces this as blatant hypocrisy. Labour has always been opposed to Socialism and the interests of the working people but this miserable attempt to present themselves as the champions of the underdog — at the same time that they are viciously attacking workers and their living conditions — is dishonest even by their unprincipled standards.

For all that, Peterloo is an incident which deserves to remembered — especially by those who claim that the British working class has no 'revolutionary' tradition. In the first half of the 19th century, working-class unrest tended to reflect the state of the harvest. So 1817, with a heavy grain crop and the price of wheat falling from 111s. 6d. per quarter to 75s. found the Home Secretary writing
Our situation and prosperity at home are improving. The materials of disaffection to work upon are less abundant and less susceptible than at the corresponding period last year.
To which Lord Exmouth replied that this was not only the factor in keeping the workers in their place:
We owe our present peaceful and happy prospects to your firmness and prompt exertions in keeping down the democrats.
The wheat harvest for 1818 was much poorer, however, and by July 20,000 workers were on strike in Manchester (out of a population which in 1801 had been estimated at something over 70,000). For the most part the workers' demands were entirely economic, for improved wages and working conditions, but groups of radicals tried to point out that any solution to their hardships would need to be far more fundamental than this.

Universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and repeal of the Corn Laws were the reforms which these elements campaigned for, but for a long time their ideas found a hostile reception. For example, John Bagguley — an agitator who was active in the Manchester area — was beaten up in August 1818 by a crowd of strikers in Manchester and was also shouted down when he tried to speak at a meeting of weavers in nearby Stockport.

But gradually, partly as a result of their experiences in the struggle to improve their conditions and partly in response to the arguments of the reformers, political ideas started to spread among the working class. As the stipendary magistrate for Manchester wrote:
I do not by any means think that the system of turning out in the different trades is connected with this idea [parliamentary reform], or that the sentiment itself has taken root in the minds of the mass of the population, yet I am disposed to think that this idea gains ground  . . . 
This, then, was the background to the huge gathering, 50,000 to 60,000 strong, which assembled in St Peter's Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819 to listen to Henry Hunt, a leading radical. The banners they carried called for 'Parliaments Annual', 'Suffrage Universal' and harked back to the French Revolution ('Liberty and Fraternity'). But the general lack of political clarity was also well illustrated when a band played God Save the King before the meeting started.

Although the crowd was well-behaved and unarmed the magistrates decided to arrest Hunt and sent the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to do this. This bunch of scared and incompetent territorials came charging onto the field, knocking down a woman and killing her baby on the way, but — after arresting Hunt — they found themselves stranded among the densely packed throng. Seeing this, the magistrates claimed that the workers were "attacking the Yeomanry" (a complete lie) and gave the order for the troops of Hussars who were being held in reserve to disperse the crowd with their sabres. Eleven people died, either cut down or trampled to death, and over 400 were wounded. As the Prince Regent put it, the magistrates and the army were to be thanked for their "prompt, decisive, and efficient measures for the preservation of public tranquillity."

But it was The Times, writing four days after Peterloo, which made the most penetrating comment on the massacre:
The more attentively we have considered the relations subsisting between the upper and labouring classes throughout some of the manufacturing districts, the more painful and unfavourable is the construction which we are forced to put upon the events of last Monday  . . . The two great divisions of society there, are — the masters, who have reduced the rate of wages; and the workmen, who complain of their masters having done so. Turn the subject as we please, 'to this complexion it must come at last'.
In other words, Peterloo was just one particularly brutal battle in the class war of capitalism — which still persists today. And there should be few workers in Manchester or anywhere else with illusions as to which side of the barricades the Labour party is fighting on.
Manchester Branch,
Socialist Party of Gt. Britain

Are Socialists Sadists?

From the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
It is two hundred years since the Marquis de Sade died – we examine his political ideas.
On 2 December 2nd, 1814 Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, the Marquis de Sade, died in an insane asylum. The words ‘sadism’ and ‘sadist’ are derived from his name. De Sade was incarcerated for about 32 years of his life (including ten years in the Bastille), often without access to the courts. During the French Revolution he was an elected delegate to the National Convention. He was given the task of reviewing sanitation in the hospitals. These were terrible places but thanks to de Sade, individual beds were given to each and every patient, whereas formerly one was obliged to share, sleeping alongside the dying and the dead in one bed. De Sade forced the hospital authorities to transform the clinics and hospitals into places fit for patients. He was also given the task of overseeing the renaming of the streets of Paris, abolishing the Christian names, renaming them after republican heroes, for example, Rue Spartacus.
He began to challenge the efforts by the new masters of France to sabotage democratic measures. But democracy was to be overtaken swiftly by The Terror. Unlike the English Jacobins (of the London Corresponding Society etc), the French Jacobins were not the representatives of the still weak and relatively new working class. They represented the petite-bourgeoisie. Only 6 percent of those passing beneath the guillotine during the Jacobin regime were aristocrats. The rest were minor clergy and workers, 80 percent of victims being manual labourers. The nascent workers’ movement was silenced by Robespierre, and not later.
As regards prison and the death penalty, de Sade was opposed to every form of punishment: ‘It is far simpler to hang men than to find out why we condemn them.’ Again and again he spoke for the release of those brought before the tribunal, and never once would he allow himself to vote for the death penalty. Finally, having stormed out of the tribunal, he wrote to his friend Gaufridy: ‘They wanted me to put through a bestial and bloody resolution, which I couldn't do.’ Then toward the end of the year 1793 they came for Citizen de Sade himself. He was pencilled in to be guillotined but avoided that fate by the good fortune of having been transferred to another prison. When Napoleon Bonaparte became military dictator de Sade’s temporary liberty ended and without any trial he was thrown into political prison once more, before being sent to an asylum.
De Sade held no illusions about the natural goodness of man, but he believed that with complete economic and sexual equality human conditions could be greatly bettered. He went far beyond the ‘advanced’ social thinkers of his time and even of the present day. One of his earlier biographers Geoffrey Gorer, who wrote The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis De Sade, pointed out that Sade was in complete opposition to contemporary philosophers for both his ‘complete and continual denial of the right to property,’ and for viewing the struggle in late 18th century French society as being not between ‘the Crown, the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy or the clergy, or sectional interests of any of these against one another’, but rather all of these ‘more or less united against the proletariat.’ Gorer argued, ‘he can with some justice be called the first reasoned socialist.’
Socialists say that society is divided into two antagonistic classes, the haves and the have-nots. This point is so fundamental for de Sade that he stresses it in every book. His definition of class can hardly be improved: ‘Don't think that I mean by the people the caste called the tiers-etat [bourgeoisie in the limited sense]; no, I mean by the people ... those who can only get a living by their labour and sweat ’. In his Aline et Valcour the good king Zamé begins his description of his visit to Europe by saying:
‘Everywhere I could reduce men into two classes both equally pitiable; in the one the rich who was the slave of his pleasures; in the other the unhappy victims of fortune; and I never found in the former the desire to be better or in the latter the possibility of becoming so, as though both classes were working for their common misery..; I saw the rich continually increasing the chains of the poor, while doubling his own luxury, while the poor, insulted and despised by the other, did not even receive the encouragement necessary to bear his burden. I demanded equality and was told it was utopian; but I soon saw those who denied its possibility were those who would lose by it...’
This is the beginning of a treatise on the class-war by the extremely savage Bishop of Grenoble who declaims ‘That is the [lower] class that I would abandon to perpetual chains and humiliation ... all others ought to join together against this abject class ... to fasten chains upon them, since they in their turn will be enchained if they relax.’
On theft, de Sade wrote that the oath taken by the nation with respect to the law of property is ridiculous: ‘How can you expect the man who has nothing to honour a law which protects the man who has everything? It is his duty, surely, to attempt to redress the balance!’ Property is itself theft, he says. The thief proposes a law to punish theft against himself, the original thief, and expects those with no other recourse than theft to respect such a law! Laws against theft are therefore absurd.’
Gorer, in his book, explains: ‘This distinction of classes is founded on property; and with unaccustomed epigrammatic terseness De Sade defined property as 'a crime committed by the rich against the poor ... theft is only punished because it attacks the right of property; but that right is in itself a theft, so that the law punishes theft because it attacks theft.’
On leadership, de Sade had this to say: ‘you can only govern men by deceiving them; one must be hypocritical to deceive them; the enlightened man will never let himself be led, therefore it is necessary to deprive him of enlightenment to lead him as we want ...’ Elsewhere, he says ‘Politics, which teach men to deceive their equals without being deceived themselves, that science born of falseness and ambition, which the statesman calls a virtue, the social man a duty, and the honest man a vice ...’
Religion is summed up by his view 'When the strong wished to enslave the weak he persuaded him that a god had sanctified the chains with which he loaded him, and the latter, stupefied by misery, believed all he was told.' Blasphemy can only exist if God exists. If there is no God, then blasphemy and all other ‘religious crimes’ are likewise non-existent. So how can you have laws against them? If one, on the other hand, believes in a God, can he really believe his God to be so petty as to take offence at being calumnied? Such a God isn't worthy of honour’.
De Sade also condemned war, which he said sent the wrong message to those abroad whom we would wish likewise to follow our example and liberate themselves. It is not our job to make war on them, but to show them through our peaceful example what a free republic can and ought to be. He claimed war is simply public and authorised murder, in which hired men slaughter one another in the interests of tyrants: 'The sword is the weapon of him who is in the wrong, the commonest resource of ignorance and stupidity.'
As mentioned, de Sade was no supporter of capital punishment. He wrote: ‘The state publicly honours those proficient in murder and encourages them. Yet it punishes the man who disposes of his enemy for a personal reason!’ As for the death penalty, he writes: ‘Either murder is a crime, or it is not. If it is not, why punish it? If it is, then by what perverse logic do you punish it by the same crime?’ It also is tantamount to bad arithmetic, since ‘now two people are dead instead of one!’
De Sade thought the greatest causes of misery were four things; private property, class distinctions, religion and family life. In the future societies he wrote of these institutions being abolished or transformed. In one section of Aline and Valcour, a brutal African kingdom is contrasted with the Pacific island utopian paradise of Tarnoé. He describes an imaginary island where all priests were banished, there were no temples and no vested interest in religion. There were also no professional lawyers and discussion of theology or law was punished as one of the gravest anti-social crimes. There was also no money.
Wherever you look in the world today you will find a parasitical minority suffering an embarrassment of riches while the toiling masses endure real and unnecessary pain as very much part of their everyday lives. The Marquis de Sade would find many examples of this obscenity in today’s class divided society. De Sade may not have been a socialist as we would now define one, but a man of his times, though he perhaps ought be remembered far more for raising important social questions than raising erections through his masturbatory sexual fantasies.

Non-reformist reformist (1996)

Book Review from the December 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Economics of the Madhouse by Chris Harman (Bookmarks, £3.50).

This is a well-rounded and generally well-written criticism of the modern capitalist economy and the economists who are paid to defend it. It deals with exploitation, economic crises, globalisation and many other issues of interest in a manner socialists are likely to generally agree with. As might be expected from the leading economic theoretician of the SWP, there are the usual nods in the direction of the Permanent Arms Economy as an explanation for the post-war boom and towards the allegedly socialist nature of the Russian Bolshevik coup d'etat, but these are only fleeting references and therefore only appear as minor irritants.

Harman's criticism of contemporary reformism echoes much of ours, in particular his claim that today's Labour Party does not offer unlimited beneficent reforms of the system so much as "reformism without reforms". Above all, Harman makes plain that far from the Labour Party having changed the market economy, it is the market economy that has changed Labour. Now Labour doesn't even pretend to be the party of the working class and offers little if anything distinct from the Conservatives.

Given Harman's eloquent description of the failure of capitalism across the planet, readers could be forgiven for thinking he is an advocate of common ownership and production solely for use as the solution to the problems created by the market. Far from it, Harman is actually more graphic than most SWP'ers in his claim that the answer to the "economics of the madhouse" is, er . . .  more economics of the madhouse. Viz:
"The day after the socialist revolution, as the day before, the great mass of people would go to work in factories and offices, and would be paid in money for what they did . . . It will in fact take many decades for people to learn to control consciously very many of the mass of productive processes that take place in a modern society, and in the interim they will have little choice but to put up with the old market mechanisms" (pp.103-4).
This serves to blow Harman's criticisms of the Labour reformists out of the water because the SWP is here shown to be reconciled to the insanity of the market just as much as they are. The explanation offered for this—that the working class would not know how to operate and organise production without the capitalist class and their system to guide them—is simply bizarre, un-Marxist nonsense. The working class already operates capitalism from top to bottom and long ago, as Engels pointed out, capitalism reduced the bulk of the owning class to the status of economic parasites, tearing off their share coupons and gambling on the stock exchange without taking any real part in the processes of production and distribution. If Harman claims that the introduction of production for use must be held back for "decades" because of the inability of the mass of the population to operate society, he is duty bound to tell us which functions the capitalists are able to perform that the rest of us can't. He is duty bound to, but, given the SWP's reticence to debate with socialists and their evident confusion on this topic, we somehow imagine that he wont.