The Left in History: Revolution and Reform in Twentieth-Century Politics

The Left in History: Revolution and Reform in Twentieth-Century Politics

by Willie Thompson

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783719440
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 12/20/1996
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 920 KB

About the Author

Willie Thompson was Professor of Contemporary History at Glasgow Caledonian University. His books include Work, Sex and Power (Pluto, 2015), Ideologies in the Age of Extremes (Pluto, 2011) and What Happened to History? (Pluto, 2000). He is currently vice-president of the Socialist History Society.

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The Matrix: Roots of the Catastrophe

Historical divisions are always arbitrary, and there are a variety of timescales through which the evolution of 'the left' can be interpreted – although the years 1792–4, 1848, 1871 and 1917 would mark turning points in any such scheme. However, one way of envisaging this career is to consider it in two almost exactly equal phases lasting a century in each case. The first stretches from the appearance of the concept in the era of the French Revolution to the foundation of the Socialist International in 1889. These decades represented a period of flux, during which philosophies challenging the entrenched power of social and political conservatism competed on relatively equal terms. Ideologies (within an almost exclusively European crucible) were in the process of formation and organisations embodying them emerged and disappeared with regularity and rapidity. The tide underlying all these individual currents and eddies was that of demographic growth, urbanisation, expanding industrialisation and marketisation, all disrupting age-old patterns of life among handicraft producers and peasants (whose numbers increased nonetheless) while generating new classes and class divisions; above all the class of propertyless wage labourers in the new technologically-orientated enterprises, concentrated in massive conurbations.

The 'working class', Marx's proletariat, was a creation of the nineteenth century, although the identifiable line of socio-economic development leading to its appearance stretched back several centuries. The banking techniques pioneered in thirteenth-century Italy constituted the indispensable starting point for the economic revolutions which brought into being a world dominated by machine industry and commodity production. However they certainly could not have played that role without the transformation which was effected in the sixteenth century by the emergence of a worldwide economy – still in its initial stages – thanks to European subjugation of the Americas and seaborne contacts established with the societies of southern and eastern Asia.

Through detours and fluctuations of greater or lesser violence, revolution, slump and war, three interlinked trends have asserted themselves in the evolution of the world regarded as a single market: firstly a demographic explosion; secondly constant expansion and deepening of productive capacities in this economy as a unit (though not necessarily in all of its component sectors); and, thirdly the steady extinction of subsistence production or insulated local markets in favour of sucking an ever-rising proportion of the expanding world population into the global circuits of exchange. At all times however, the global economy has been dominated from a single centre, by a particular political unit, each of which can be identified with a specific regime of accumulation, of which historically there have been three – the Spanish, the British (in two separate phases) and the American. '... every step forward', according to Giovanni Arrighi, 'involves a change of guard at the commanding heights of the world capitalist economy and a concomitant "organisational revolution" in processes of capital accumulation'.

During the first three centuries of the world economy the basic producers overwhelmingly (though there were some exceptions) remained either agriculturalists or handicraft workers – often enough the same persons. It was however among urban handicraft producers – and on occasion their female dependants – that an ideological ferment was generated in such a manner as to provide a numerous and receptive audience for notions that the social world might – and should – be turned upside down. These individuals however were no homogeneous mass, rather they were minutely differentiated by employment, income, age status and, in Britain, religion. Yet on certain occasions, England in the seventeenth century and France in the eighteenth, they proved able, when seized by an all-encompassing idea, amalgamating the abstractions propounded by publicists and agitators with their own social experience, primarily as regards the authoritarian arrogance they received from their betters, to combine into a political force potentially or actually capable of toppling governments.

The Working Class

By the early years of the nineteenth century this social stratum was, throughout the economically advanced states of Western Europe, increasingly disciplined by the whip of market forces. These producers, beneath the guise of contractual independence, were in effect being turned into outworking wage labourers but loathed having to acknowledge the fact. They faced severe, sometimes catastrophic, reductions in income along with loss of independence and status. They tended to be relatively well educated, to possess informal networks which could transmit and transform ideas, to have leisure to read and think and to be conscious of the example of the French Revolution which demonstrated that the powers that be were not unchallengeable. On both the continent and Britain it was among circles like these, rather than in the newly formed factory proletariat or the men who constructed and operated the emergent railway networks, that notions of political revolutionism with social overtones first took root and where the concept of the working class as a distinct social entity eventually found acceptance. Wilhelm Weitling is described as 'the most important utopian socialist thinker within the early German labour movement', his ideas to be 'based completely upon a vision of craft production in small workshops'. This was the proletariat which rose in revolt in Paris in 1848 and 1871 and which Marx and Engels took as the political model for the yet more recent working class of machine industry and concentrated production.

The latter, more novel still, was a class that had arrived on the scene with unprecedented speed and suddenness and whose emergence always transformed the age-old character of political and social relations. Wherever it formed it began – or at least its adult male component did – to pursue organisation: whether in educational circles aiming at basic literacy or expanded knowledge; friendly insurance societies as frail protection against the rigours of the job market; co-operative societies to abate the rigours of the nineteenth-century consumer market; or protective associations against the employer. The ultimate embodiment of such organisation was that of a political movement to either influence the state at its topmost level or to aim at its total overturn.

All of such developments were made possible only by the fact that the new industrial proletariat was as a class positioned differently from any of its predecessors. The individuals who composed it were not only in very large part pushed together in close proximity as operatives in factories and as dwellers in urban conurbations, they also inhabited cultures of general literacy, mass periodical circulation, rapid transport and communication and a general weakening (if far from extinction) of religious influences – in short mass societies of an increasingly secular bent. The evolving labour movements had built their organisational structures after many experiments, trials and failures, often in desperate and precarious circumstances, to conform with the social and cultural principles of such societies. In Western Europe, as political legitimacy increasingly came to rest on a concept of universal citizenship exemplified by the electoral franchise, their political weight and leverage was correspondingly strengthened.

In the event Britain was the laboratory, as equally it was the pioneer of machine industry. E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class is, famously, only marginally concerned with the factory proletariat and concludes in the 1830s, at which time it might be considered that the classic British labour movement and working-class culture had scarcely begun to be formed. Indeed the book's subject is the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century 'labouring poor' of the pre-factory era and the manner in which decades of bitter exploitation and political repression brought into being the consciousness of a working-class identity – which, rather than 'objective' relation to the mode of production, Thompson regarded as constituting the essence of class being.

It is possible to criticise The Making for an implicit presumption that the formation of mature class consciousness was the outcome to which all the preceding developments were striving with a greater or lesser degree of clarity. In this conception the experiences of the years 1793–1819 supplied the historical raw material out of which people like Cobbett and the primitive socialists articulated an outlook which had become the common sense of the workers by the 1830s of a fundamental if not irreconcilable conflict of interest between capital and labour. Whether or not the classic can be faulted on those grounds, what its author certainly demonstrates beyond any question and in voluminous detail is the extent to which the collective institutions, practices and outlooks of an artisan and handicraft workforce were adapted and reconstructed into those of the new class and provided the underpinning also for real innovations. In the mutual benefit club, reaching back centuries, can be identified the embryo both of social insurance and the cooperative movement. Masonic forms of organisation and even ritual served as the model for early trade unionism; traditions of artisan self-education were carried right over into proletarian self-improvement associations. Religious forms of organisation – not to speak of ideology – were copied and made their contribution as well. In the Chartist movement of the late 1830s and 1840s these streams of development coalesced into an emergent political party – one which however failed to survive a combination of government repression and antagonisms arising out of the different strata of the labouring population from which the movement was composed. Thereafter British nineteenth-century working-class political action assumed other forms.

With important variations in detail, of which their formal ideology and relation to political society is the most significant, the model pioneered in Britain was copied by the workers' movements in Europe and further afield and the transition from primitive industrial workforce to articulate labour movement rendered much shorter and more straightforward. The phraseology of a title like 'The Making of the German Working Class' would sound rather odd and forced. However it has to be acknowledged that whatever their pre-industrial antecedents, the forms of organisation arrived at by the various labour movements were ones which the structures of capital-labour relations and social divisions prevailing in nineteenth-century industry and society might have been expected to produce. Social insurance, co-operative marketing, collective bargaining, educational and cultural uplift, political petitioning and pressure are, after all, forms of action which have a certain evident logic and would certainly sooner or later find their place in any emergent working class's repertoire. It is quite a different matter with ideology and political consciousness.

Movements and Individuals

It has been a persistent vice of the left to mistake the formal positions adopted by its institutions – political parties, trade unions or whatever – for the unanimous outlook of the members, and that therefore winning formal endorsement of a programme from the meeting of a congress or executive is equivalent to achieving ardent commitment at the grassroots. In reality it has never been more than a small minority who are continuously thinking about or active in politics or projects of social change and who, also because of their special concerns and interests, tend to be in some degree alienated from the general culture of their class; and only very occasionally and in special circumstances that the masses are gripped by and become active participants around political issues.

Social consciousness in other words is for most people (of all classes, ethnic origins and sexual orientation) only very indirectly a matter of class, unless there are formal types of discrimination based explicitly upon it. What people are concerned with in the main is getting on with their lives at the micro level. They are more likely to be exercised by the placings of the football league than the outcome of the municipal elections, though they may well have voted in the latter. Class, although an excellent conceptual tool to analyse economic and other forms of exploitation, is a rather poor predictor of social, let alone political consciousness. Autobiographical recollections of British working-class socialist activists from the pre-1914 era make it clear how far they tended to be isolated in their local communities, regarded as eccentrics of some sort who developed in response attitudes of elitist superiority. The renowned socialist novel from the same period, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, has this isolation as its theme, incorporating a bitter denunciation of the group of workers among whom the story is set for their unwillingness to raise their consciousness to the protagonist's understanding of class realities.

Britain was notoriously behind other major European states in giving birth to a socialist labour movement and a political labour party, although the paradox of the oldest and most socially experienced labour movement showing exceptional reluctance to break with its liberal mentors – not to speak of mass support for conservatism and imperialism within the British working class at large – might in itself have cast doubt on the historic confidence of the early Socialist International. Their French, and more especially their German, counterparts appeared on the face of things to be far more politically advanced. Socialism in one or another form had captured by the 1880s the proletarian culture in those countries, along with other smaller ones. But that too could be simplistic, misrepresenting attachments which might range from fervent activist identification through to indifference or passive acquiescence because the most available culture in terms of association, reading matter entertainment and even consumption happened to derive from the socialist movement.

The distinction between the movement and the individuals which constituted it is therefore important, for the outlooks of the two do not necessarily coincide; the movement's leadership need not and seldom did represent a working-class general will. Not only did it have its own bureaucratic interests, well-examined by historians, but for the most part the leadership would simply be accepted as long as it continued to deliver the expected goods. Explorations into the Alltagsgeschichte, the history of everyday life, by historians of both French and German working classes confirm the substantial gap that existed between 'official' and grassroots working-class culture. Moreover, even in the workplace itself the advance of the large enterprise and the second industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, far from generating a more homogeneous working class as Marx and Engels implicitly expected, strengthened sectional differences inherited from the artisan era and bred innumerable new ones with their endless implications for rivalry and conflict.

Nevertheless, with all these facts taken into account and the momentous consequences they were to have for the subsequent history of the left, is is equally important that some variety of left-wing orientation, generally socialism, did become the official political culture of the labour movements in Europe and elsewhere. That this was so must be attributed directly or indirectly to the impact of the totalising explanation which Marx and Engels advanced for the world of the late nineteenth century and the respective roles of labour and capital within it. The impact was experienced and was influential even where, as in the UK and the US, the revolutionary doctrine was explicitly rejected.

[Bernard Shaw] meant that Marx's picture of social exploitation, as well as the promise of decisive social change, remained more or less intact. 'Read Jevons and the rest for your economics,' he wrote in 1887, and 'read Marx for the history of their working in the past and the condition of their application in the present. And never mind the metaphysics.' ... even Webb continued to see the 'class war' ... as the key to the confused history of all European progress.


Excerpted from "The Left in History"
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Copyright © 1997 Willie Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents

PART I Mainstreams,
1 The Matrix: Roots of the Catastrophe,
2 Leninism and Stalinism,
3 'Actually Existing Socialism',
4 The Fragments,
5 Social Democracy,
PART II Alternatives,
6 Trotskyism, Maoism, Eurocommunism,
7 New Left, New Social Forces and Others,
Conclusion – The Winter Landscape,

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