Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, February 16, 2009

Marx, Engels, Chartism and capitalist crisis

Marx is saying 'Revolutionaries should arm themselves with the ideas of Capital as well as a brick for the barricades.' Possibly.

Last September, just as Western capitalism began to go into economic crisis, the historian Tristram Hunt wrote a short piece for the Guardian about it (in part to cut the chances of himself personally suffering during the 'credit crunch' by shamelessly plugging his forthcoming biography of Engels, 'The Frock-coated Communist'):

"The American crash is superb and not yet over by a long chalk," Engels wrote in October 1857. "The repercussion in England would appear to have begun with the Liverpool Borough Bank. Tant mieux. That means that for the next three or four years, commerce will again be in a bad way. Nous avons maintenant de la chance." The conditions for revolution were ripe. With the capitalist mode of production in collapse, the working class would surely rise to the occasion. But two months into the crash the proletariat had still failed to realise its historic calling. "There are as yet few signs of revolution, for the long period of prosperity has been fearfully demoralising," Engels noted gloomily. And by the following spring, business had picked itself up again on the back of new markets in India and China.

Hunt's piece essentially seems written not only to give the impression Marx and Engels were given to expecting the final crisis of capitalism to hit every decade or so but also to reinforce the prevailing 'common sense' of our time - that the English working class will not fight during any economic downturn. Governments may fall in Iceland, general strikes may break out across France and Greece, and even factories may be occupied in Ireland but in England the proletariat simply will always somehow 'fail to realise its historic calling'. It is therefore timely by way of an antidote that the socialist historian Keith Flett, author of Chartism after 1848 is speaking in London on 16 March on 'Marx, Engels, Chartism and the capitalist crises of 1844 and 1858' at the Institute of Historical Research. For not only did both Marx and Engels feel vindicated by the way in which boom to slump seemed to be inherently built into the capitalist system as it developed, but, incidently, by the 1870s, Marx had already worked out that it was all but impossible to predict how deep and damaging any particular crisis of capitalism might be. Though the history of 'capitalist crisis' can be dated back to the 'tulip mania' of 1637, systemic crises were still a historically relatively novel phenomenon of capitalism in Marx's day, yet Marx could write to
to say he had 'resolved to give up for the time being' trying to 'determine mathematically the principal laws governing crises'.

As for an antidote to the 'common sense' ideas of the ingrained passivity of the English working class one does not have to look far to see the growing signs of a mood for a fightback in workplaces and offices. Socialist Worker has a video of the moment car workers at BMW's Mini plant heard earlier today they would lose 850 jobs (with next to no notice of these redundancies for agency staff). According to Union sources, 'workers booed and threw apples and oranges at managers after being told they were losing their jobs. Agency workers leaving Cowley this morning expressed their fury at being given just one hour's notice of the redundancies. 'Class Struggle - It's a mini adventure' might be one possible slogan if trade unionists do decide to organise action in the face of this latest jobs massacre...

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At 10:39 am, Blogger Roobin said...

"workers booed and threw apples and oranges at managers after being told they were losing their jobs..."

They still went home though.

At 12:54 pm, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

Flett is a fine historian and his talk will certainly be worth listening to. The only problem is that, given Flett's speaking style, it will be almost impossible to hear what he says. Surely the LSHG should invest in a microphone - or perhaps cheaper, shave Flett's beard off.

At 1:49 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Roobin - true, but watching on the news managers physically restraining workers (before sending them home) was a break from the norm of sorts.

'shave Flett's beard off' - what, liberate it in other words?


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