A Marxist History of Police, Part II. – Experimenting on the Irish

By Stephen James Kerr

Today we are publishing the second part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police” dealing with experiments towards a police force in Ireland by Sir Robert Peel, up to the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Part 1: Repression in the face of revolution, examined how the birth of the industrial working class and the tumult of the bourgeois revolutions drove the need for new forms of repression.

England in 1800: Poverty and crime but no police

The first notable history of police is called A History of the Police in England, and was penned in 1901 by William Lauriston Melville Lee, who would later go on to head up British spying operations against socialists under PMS2, Parliamentary Military Section 2 in WWI. This group was later absorbed into MI5. Lee would also later publish a periodical entitled ‘Industrial Peace’ which was in fact a black list circulated amongst factory owners, smearing suspected communists and labour organizers.

Melville Lee writes that in 1801 England, “the proportion of thieves and delinquents to other honest individuals must have been alarmingly high.” (196). Lee notes that between 1801 and 1811 the percentage of apprehensions rose 50%, while the population only increased by 16% in the same period.

“Night after night, undisturbed by watchmen or other peace officers, hundreds of urchins huddled together for shelter and company under the barrows and fruit stalls of Covent Garden Market. Day after day, these homeless and unhealthy vagabonds quartered the town street by street, alley by alley, in search of any prey they might be able to lay their hands on. Their pickings and stealings were turned into money with ease at the shop of any one of the six thousand receivers of stolen property…” [i]

Britain in 1800 was in the midst of enormous upheaval, mainly due to its wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. The spectre of invasion by an external enemy helped rally working people behind the British ruling class. At the same time however, the war wreaked economic devastation and many men were forced into enlistment as the only alternative to starvation. The British government enacted higher taxes to pay for the enormous costs of war, which placed a further burden upon the people.

The Plumb-pudding in danger , James Gillray, 1805, Pitt and Napoleon dividing the world between them

Lee hints at the resulting loss of state authority among the poorest. “John Sayer, the Bow Street officer stated before a Parliamentary Committee, that there were streets in Westminster, especially Duck Lane, Gravel Lane, and Cook Lane, infested by a gang of desperate men, and so dangerous that no policeman dared venture there, unless accompanied by five or six of his comrades, for fear of being cut to pieces.”.

Lee admits that despite a desire to check “the savage tendencies of the people” “offences against property were even more numerous than crimes of violence.” Sixteen robberies in the rich borough of Kensington in six weeks. Counterfeit banknotes distributed. Coachmen conspiring to “rob the traveling public.” The economic crisis of the Napoleonic Wars drove the desperate towards theft, and also towards a new political consciousness.

But though the Bow Street Runners were tasked with prosecuting theft, there was no police force to deal with social unrest. “Before 1830 there were only two methods of dealing with a riotous mob, the first was to leave it severely alone, the second was to allow a regiment of cavalry to trample it into submission.”

Keeping the Indians and Irish down: Imperialist experiments in policing

If the British ruling class was still squeamish about the threat of an organized police force to ‘English liberties’ at home, it felt no such inhibitions for the liberties of the Irish or the Indians.

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis abolished the system of local police forces in Bengal under the control of the local magistrate, and staffed by European officers. This greatly facilitated the main purpose of the British in India, which was the bleeding out of India of all of its wealth for export to Great Britain. 89% of the revenue from land taxes administered by local land lords called ‘Zamindars’ was appropriated by the British. British police and legal reforms were key to securing this revenue.

However, police experiments in Ireland were more crucial to establishing the police in England. Writing in 1885, F.W. Maitland, one of the first Police Commissioners, admits that “A full history of the New Police would probably lay its first scene in Ireland, and begin with the Dublin Police Act passed by the Irish Parliament in 1786.” This act was modeled on Pitt’s rejected 1785 police bill in the British Parliament.

The Irish were not immune to ‘the French disease.’ The formation of the United Irishmen in 1792 was inspired by the Revolution in France, and sought parliamentary reform as well as the “abolition of bigotry in religion and politics.”

Wolfe Tone was one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, and leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. He was captured and sentenced to death.. This is one of the inscribed flagstones on the steps leading to his grave.

Protestant versus Catholics: the divide and rule strategy

Where in England the ruling class had responded to the growth of corresponding societies by establishing their own vigilante group, the ruling Irish Protestant landowners responded by regularizing the Orange Order, which organized repression of Catholics by Protestants, further establishing British authority on a sectarian basis.

The failed Irish rebellion of 1798 resulted in particularly barbaric reprisals by the British military, including house burnings, widespread torture and rape, the burning alive of rebel suspects and targeted murders. One torture method involved the pouring of hot tar on the head of the insurgent, and then its removal, along with the skin.

The British Parliament also attacked Irish independence by dissolving the Irish House of Commons at Dublin and merging Irish “representation” with the Westminster Parliament in London through the Act of Union of 1800.

Lord Peel, who would later go on to establish the London Metropolitan Police, became Irish secretary in 1812, and devoted himself to maintaining the Act of Union and the repression of the Irish peasantry. By the time the young politician had finished with Ireland he was ready for the British Cabinet.

In 1813 Peel brought in the Irish Fire Arms bill, which prevented “improper persons” (the Catholic peasant majority) from owning guns. “The object of the Bill was to preserve the peace by means of the civil power, without recourse to the military” according to Peel. [ii] This would become a central rationale for professional police forces in England.

The bill was ostensibly a response to an upsurge of attacks by armed Catholics in Limerick and Waterford on local protestant authorities, in which Catholic militants had been freed from the gaol by the Irish people.

But despite Peel’s pretense to the “firm determination to conciliate all parties”, Catholic and Protestant in Ireland, he remained partial to the cause of the Orange Order, a semi-legal association led by the exclusively Protestant “nobility” of Ireland, and based in the Scots and English imported small holders who were settled in Ireland. [iii] The Order drew on the wealth of the gentry to fund its operations, which made the organization financially independent without having to solicit membership dues. Yet Peel firmly opposed the Catholic defense associations which relied upon small subscriptions from poor peasant households to fund opposition to British rule.

The oppressive characteristics of this rule merit some comment.

Ireland was a peasant society and economy, with agriculture being the basis of nearly all wealth creation. There were some industrial towns around Belfast in the north. But a tiny minority owned all of the land, and much production was exported, leaving an impoverished subsistence economy for the majority whose labour produced the wealth that enriched the tiny landowning class. This tiny minority were in the main protestant imports from England and Scotland, with a select few ennobled.

An eviction in the West of Ireland

These not only monopolized political life – Irish Catholics could not sit in the House of Commons – but also and most importantly Ireland’s economic life. The landlord extracted rent from the tenant farmer, and also tithes, payments from Catholics to the Protestant Church of England. Extractive rents and tithes to an “heretical” church were deeply offensive, and local disputes between landlords holding tens of thousands of acres, and peasants who paid to rent a half acre “potato garden” were the occasions of armed resistance by militant Catholic associations, who threatened to become engaged in larger, nationalist and revolutionary struggles. These disturbances threatened the stability of “civil order”, in reality a state of surrender to conditions designed to secure the flow of rent to the landlord class, and then back to England.

Robert Peel’s 1814 ‘Peace Preservation Act’: The specialisation of labor of repression

In 1814 Peel campaigned for a radical means to maintain state control in Ireland: an organized state police force, deployed throughout the country. The Hansard record of his apologia reads that “many parts of Ireland were in a disturbed state, excesses had been committed, and disaffection prevailed, which it was known that the ordinary powers of the law were insufficient to repress.”

Many of Peel’s Whig opponents in Parliament accused him of exaggerating the state of political unrest in Ireland in order to create these new powers.[iv] The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool described Peel’s measures as “not English” referring to the well-established systems of organized police repression in Continental Europe. [v] But Peel won the day.

The main object of Peel’s bill was to establish the germ of a professional and permanent police force in Ireland, to repress agrarian disturbances, and also “political combinations” which “had for their object the overthrow of the government and the separation of Ireland from Great Britain.”

Peel was careful to note the class character of this nationalist movement, from the haughty perspective of his own class. “These combinations consist of idle, infatuated people, with little education…” he declared. Peel then entered the evidence that some of the leaders of the Irish resistance had sworn oaths to assist Napoleon should French forces land in Ireland. The attempt was prevented only by bad weather.

Peel also noted the intense solidarity of the Irish with each other. There was a “romantic sentiment” in the country which made the “name and character of an informer odious and was almost sufficient of itself to close the ordinary sources from whence information could be derived.”

“He proposed a Bill, which would give the Lord Lieutenant a power, when disturbances existed in any county, to proclaim that district to be in a disturbed state, to appoint a superintending magistrate with a salary, and special constables, with salaries.” These special constables would “keep watch and ward in the disturbed district.” These constables did not have special powers, and were responsible to and removable by the government, in theory. [vi]  In practice they could do whatever they liked, to whomever they liked, and they did.

This professionalization of the old “ward and watch”, which had previously drawn on local amateurs in their spare time, represented a technical advance, according to Peel. “Their minds being wholly turned towards one employment, they became more skilled in the mode of detecting and apprehending offenders.” In this, Peel was applying to the problem of policing the specialization of labour arising out of British industrialism. Peel himself was a wealthy owner of cotton mills in northern England.

Thus the specialization of labour deployed to enforce work discipline and extract profits in the Peel family cotton mills was now to be employed in the repression of organized political opposition to the state in a restive colony.

Peel also emphasized that removing the responsibility of self-policing from the local authorities would give the government the means to break through local solidarity; “they (the police) would have no local allurements to sway their judgment” he observed.

But Peel’s initial measures only radicalized the Irish poor. One month later, Peel declared that “in those parts of Ireland where the laws had been administered with the greatest severity, and where the greatest number of convictions had taken place, the terror arising from these convictions had scarcely survived the cause, when new combinations of a more extensive and dangerous character had given birth, and these combinations were carried on with a degree of secrecy which defied the operation of the law.” In plain language, Irish resistance was implacable, and new repression sparked fresh resistance. Peel requested that power be given to local Irish magistrates to sentence agitators to Transportation to forced labour in the British colonies, and to reinstitute the Insurrection Act.

Peel then criminalized the Catholic Associations which organized peasant resistance. It was a pattern Peel would repeat in England: exploit and oppress the poor, and declare their resistance to repression to be “illegal.”

England 1815-17: Years of hunger, rebellion and repression.

While Peel was busy reducing Ireland, conditions in England were worsening. Demobilized soldiers who had defeated Napoleon and assisted the British Empire in making Europe safe for the landed gentry were abandoned to their fate by the English government of the day. These impoverished men swelled the ranks of the indigent poor, and many could be found begging in the city streets.

In 1815 the British government passed the Corn Law, which protected British agriculture from cheap foreign imported grain. On the day the Law was passed, armed troops had to circle parliament to keep out a massive demonstration of enraged eaters.

Bread riot at the entrance to the House of Commons in 1815 as a result of the Corn Laws.

The Corn Laws kept the cost of subsistence high for the English poor, while guaranteeing fat profits for British landlords. The next year, 1816 was called “the year without a summer” due to the volcanic explosion of Mount Tabora in Indonesia (though the cause of the poor weather was not known in Europe at that time). The presence of volcanic dust in the atmosphere caused alternating frosts and heat waves in Europe during the summer of that year, resulting in crop failure and widespread famine. Worker’s wages had collapsed. People were starving.

The economic conditions combined with widespread hunger led people to rebel. On November 15, and then again on December 2nd, and 9th 1816 mass meetings of impoverished workers were held at Spa Fields just outside of London. These were some of the first open air mass meetings of working people in British history, and mark the birth of the labour movement.

The meetings were organized by “Spenceans” – the followers of the then recently deceased English Radical Thomas Spence, who had campaigned for the abolition of the landed gentry, the public ownership of all land, universal suffrage for both men and women, a guaranteed material standard of living, and for the rights of children since the 1770s. These mass meetings have become known to history as the Spa Fields riots as they were violently suppressed by the British military and what police forces existed at the time. The Riots also curiously played out some of the general features to be found at many modern demonstrations.

Caricature by George Cruikshank. The tricolor ribbon is inscribed “No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!” Below the ribbon, and its Phrygian cap with tricolor cockade, are two bloody axes, attached to a guillotine, whose blade is suspended above a burning globe. An emaciated man and drunken woman dressed in ragged clothes serve as heraldic “supporters”, gleefully dancing on discarded royal and clerical regalia…

The radical movement at the time was very poorly organized, and also infiltrated by police spies from the Home Office. The demonstrations were instigated by a radical faction, the Spenceans, but the more moderate reform leaders such as Henry Hunt were invited to speak. On December 2nd, radicalized sections of the demonstration broke away on various direct actions which failed due to their folly, lack of organization, leadership, coherent strategy, tactics and numbers. These included the raiding of various gunshops, an attempt to liberate inmates from one of London’s prisons, and an abortive attack on the Tower of London.

Some of these direct actions were originated by the spontaneous leadership of anonymous members of the London crowd. While these actions were taking place, the majority of the massive crowd remained at Spa Fields, listened to Henry Hunt’s moderate speech, after which they peacefully went home while the police repression of the incited crowd continued.

The jury at the treason trial of James Watson, one of the radical leaders of the meetings, found that the government had employed agents provocateurs, including the principal witness for the prosecution, and resulted in the acquittal of the accused. [vii]The revelation that the government was using paid agents to incite violence which it could then repress totally scandalized all of Britain. People simply could not imagine it, though the use of paid informants and provocateurs had long been a common, though heretofore hidden practice of the English government.

The public mood became increasingly revolutionary. The Prince Regent’s (later George IV) coach was attacked by rebellious workers on January 28th 1817, in an incident reminiscent of the attack on his father’s carriage in 1795.

The British government responded in exactly the same way as Pitt’s government had, by suspending Habeas Corpus on Feb 24, 1817, and by passing a new Treason Act, which declared that even to “imagine” the destruction of the existing political order was an act of Treason. This gave the government near unlimited power to repress the workers. [viii] 

The repressive measures only generated more resistance, to which the government responded with ever more repressive measures. Thompson notes that whereas Pitt’s repression in 1795 could be accepted by most Britons as a defense against continental style despotism, the repression of Regency London in 1817 was widely resented as the epitome of continental style despotism.

The rise of the industrial working class: a slumbering giant awakes

How did the same repressive measures of 1795 and 1817 meet such opposite reactions? What accounts for the total transformation in the attitude of the British public over the course of 22 years? The rapid growth and emergence as a distinct class, of the industrial working class over the same period.

Engels gives an account of it in his introduction to ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England.’ Of the condition of the pre-industrial craftsperson in England, Engels writes:

“Before the introduction of machinery, the spinning and weaving of raw materials was carried on in the workingman’s home. Wife and daughter spun the yarn that the father wove or that they sold, if he did not work it up himself. These weaver families lived in the country in the neighbourhood of the towns, and could get on fairly well with their wages, because the home market was almost the only one and the crushing power of competition that came later, with the conquest of foreign markets and the extension of trade, did not yet press upon wages. There was, further, a constant increase in the demand for the home market, keeping pace with the slow increase in population and employing all the workers; and there was also the impossibility of vigorous competition of the workers among themselves, consequent upon the rural dispersion of their homes. So it was that the weaver was usually in a position to lay by something, and rent a little piece of land, that he cultivated in his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he chose to take, since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased. True, he was a bad farmer and managed his land inefficiently, often obtaining but poor crops; nevertheless, he was no proletarian, he had a stake in the country, he was permanently settled, and stood one step higher in society than the English workman of today.” [ix]

A working family who ‘had a stake in the country’ being ‘permanently settled’ could have imagined that their interests indeed did lie with ‘Church and King.’ And indeed in 1795 they mostly did.

“In short, the English industrial workers of those days lived and thought after the fashion still to be found here and there in Germany, in retirement and seclusion, without mental activity and without violent fluctuations in their position in life. They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought, delighted in physical exercises, listened with inherited reverence when the Bible was read, and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well-disposed towards the “superior” classes.” [x]

But the growth of the factory system created a massive class of workers who were permanently unsettled, who had no stake in ANY country, and certainly no stake in the ‘mixed constitution.’ The violent dislocation and displacement of craft workers, weavers, dyers, ceramics workers, etc resulted in a massive transformation in the consciousness of these layers. They awoke from the slumber in which they had long gestated.

“The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men. As in France politics, so in England manufacture and the movement of civil society in general drew into the whirl of history the last classes which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” [xi]

The Peterloo Massacre: the limits of military violence

Displaced by the growing industrialization of their trade, starving cottage weavers in Lancashire and the North protested their conditions and the suspension of Habeas Corpus with the Blanket March. On March 10th 1817 as many as 20,000 spinners and weavers gathered at St. Peter’s fields at Manchester, hoping to march to London to present a petition for redress of grievances to the Prince Regent. Each marcher carried a homespun blanket, and was organized into a group of ten, which technically skirted then existing laws against illegal mass assemblies. But the marchers were broken up by the British military and 28 leaders arrested. Several were wounded by the swords of the King’s Dragoon Guards.

On August 16th, 1819 another political demonstration at St. Peter’s Field would be even more violently repressed, and mark a critical turning point. Alarmed by the increasing size of the crowd of protesting workers, the 15th Hussar brigade cut down 18 people, and wounded more than 500 others with swords. The demonstration had been led by women, with the prettiest girls in the community deliberately chosen to stand out in front as a deterrence to violent repression. Many carried banners inscribed with the demands “Reform. Universal Suffrage. Equal Representation”, and even simply, “Love.” Many were topped with the red ‘cap of liberty’ a symbol of the French Revolution, and of plebeian liberty since ancient Rome.  

The demonstration was repressed in the ‘traditional way.’ Six hundred Hussars, four hundred men of the Cheshire Cavalry, and an equal number of special constables attacked the crowd. The local Yeomanry, organized out of the wealthy shopkeepers and factory owners of the area, went about arresting the leaders.

Samuel Bamford was present, arrested after the massacre and imprisoned for one year. He wrote,

“On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”

“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.”  [xii]

The Peterloo Massacre: ‘A print from Social England, edited by HD Traill and JS Mann, volume VI. , 1904.

The general revulsion at the repression turned public opinion decidedly against using the military and yeomanry to repress demonstrations.

This atrocity, memorialized as the “Peterloo Massacre” demonstrated to the British working class that the government was willing to kill them to maintain its control and the unequal distribution of power and wealth, and to the Government that additional and more subtle means of control were required to maintain that unequal distribution.  Peterloo is a crucial turning point in the struggle of the working class for the vote, and equally in the development of police repression.

As Lee notes, “The alarming frequency by which mobs appealed to violence to compel attention to their grievances, real or supposed, by force of arms, was one of the most dangerous symptoms of the age… Unless something better than the shoddy defence, which was all that the civil power could then muster, was quickly forthcoming, the mob would soon obtain a complete mastery, for the destruction of all law and order, just as had recently happened in France.” [xiii]

[i] Melville Lee, William Lauristen. A History of the Police in England. Page 197

[ii]  Op. cit. pg 22

[iii] Op. cit pg 24

[iv]  Op. Cit. pg 37

[v] Broeker, Galen. Rural Disorder and Police Reform in Ireland, 1810-1836 pg. 60

[vi] Op. Cit. pgs 28.29

[vii] Gurney, William Brodie, The Trial Of James Watson For High Treaso’At The Bar Of The Court Of King’s Bench On Monday 9th June to Monday 16th June 1817 (London, 1817) Vol. II, pp. 258–275

[viii]  See Treason Act, 1817. (repealed) http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?LegType=All+Legislation&Year=1817&searchEnacted=0&extentMatchOnly=0&confersPower=0&blanketAmendment=0&sortAlpha=0&TYPE=QS&PageNumber=1&NavFrom=0&parentActiveTextDocId=1028887&ActiveTextDocId=1028887&filesize=3771

[ix] Engels, Op. Cit. Introduction.

[x] Op. Cit.

[xi] Op. Cit.

[xii] http://www.peterloomassacre.org/eyewitness.html

[xiii] Op Cit. page 101, Google Books edition, 2019

It is only through and open and robust discussion scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed. Classconscious.org would like to play its role in developing such a culture again. We are attempting to foster debate by publishing articles that may not fully align with the position of our editorial collective.

Support the August 20th meeting for Victorian teachers! Schools must be safe workplaces during the covid pandemic!

In an important development, a group of teachers in Melbourne, Australia, organising out of the MESJ (Melbourne Educators for Social and Environmental Justice) Facebook page, have begun organising online, cross sub-branch meetings. These meetings are to allow Australian Education Union(AEU) sub-branches to organise at a rank and file level to fight for safe working conditions during the covid pandemic. The first meeting was attended by over fifty teachers from nine different sub-branches from government schools. This fight has become necessary in the face of the Andrews Labor Government’s disregard for teachers’ safety by keeping schools open for senior students during Term 3, even as cases skyrocketed; and by the AEU’s complete capitulation to the government’s callous agenda. The next meeting is planned for August 20th at 4PM.

As part of its determination to keep the economy fully open, the Andrews government insisted that in Term 3 schools be open for senior students, children of “essential workers”, and schools for children with disabilities . Yet, when Term 3 started on July 27th, there were already over 200 cases a day being reported. This resulted in over seventy schools being closed temporarily, and a school in Northern Melbourne becoming one of the largest clusters in the state in the period leading up to the announcement of Stage 4 restrictions on August 2nd, which finally saw all schools return to remote learning within the Melbourne metropolitan area. Currently teachers at regional state special schools are still working on site despite growing case numbers in some regional centres and without any provision for pandemic leave when getting tested.

The AEU’s role in this was scandalous. As late as July 31st, at a Victorian State Council meeting, AEU officials argued against a motion demanding a return to remote learning for all students on the basis that many members opposed this measure and wanted instead “flexibility”. The motion moved by MESJ associated councillors was defeated. Even the Australian Principal Association had demanded during the previous week , a return to remote learning in Melbourne.

August 20th MESJ cross-sub- branch meeting

The proposed agenda for the upcoming meeting on August 20th is as follows:

1. Remote teaching conditions – how are things going now and what do we need?

2. Assessment, reporting and VCE – what alternatives would be preferable to business as usual?

3. Return to on-site teaching conditions – when would this be safe and what should it look like?

4. Next steps – how can we stay connected and make sure our needs are met?

Details on the meeting and how to join can be found on the MESJ Facebook group.

This initiative of the MESJ to organise cross sub-branch meetings must be supported by the broadest section of AEU members as possible across as many schools as possible. The initiative of the MESJ for cross sub-branch meetings should be replicated in other Australian states, particularly in NSW where community transition is still significant. Consideration should also be given on how to include non-unionised layers of teachers into this struggle.

This is an international struggle

This must be seen as part of the broader struggles internationally against the drive to force teachers back into the classroom whilst this pandemic rages. Tens of thousands of teachers in the US are currently fighting against the bipartisan Democrat and Republican drive to reopen the schools. Devastating stories of teachers, and even students, being asked to sign legal waivers if they get sick and die, are emerging from the US. Similar struggles are occurring in Germany and elsewhere. The capitalist ruling class is determined to open schools— not as they claim for the “benefit of students”, but because schools are needed to function as child minding centers for workers as part of the drive to reopen economies to protect the profits of the rich. Teachers care about their students and their futures, but education can’t be run in-person if it means both students and teachers are dying. This is why remote learning must be continued until the ruling class takes the actions necessary to get the Corona virus pandemic under control. Teachers, as workers, have the right to organize. They alone must decide when it is safe to return to the classroom.

Other workers internationally, from distribution, mining, and construction, to healthcare settings, manufacturing and others, all face the same pressures to return to work under unsafe conditions. Links must be made between all these struggles, and they are starting to be made. This week on Twitter the #GeneralStrike was trending in recognition of this commonality of struggle.


Support the MESJ’s initiative, join the cross sub-branch meeting on August 20th if you are a teacher and please spread amongst your networks!

Please note: classconscious.org has no affiliation with MESJ

It is only through and open and robust discussion scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed. Classconscious.org would like to play its role in developing such a culture again. We are attempting to foster debate by publishing articles that may not fully align with the position of our editorial collective.

Paul Howes: a tale of class betrayal

Listening to the ABC local radio recently, my ears were pricked by a news report announcing the appointment of Paul Howes to the Morrison Government’s economic panel supposedly dealing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Australian economy, the National COVID-19 Coordination Commission. Once again, everything I knew about this man allowed me to understand in greater detail the relationship between unions in Australia, corporations, government and US imperialism.

Howes first made headlines in Australia in 2010. His name came up, in files published by WikiLeaks (which has an unimpeachable record when it comes to reporting the truth) as having been a participant in the removal of the Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd. Howes, at the time, was the leader of the Australian Workers Union, which covered millions of workers in many industries around the country. Howes was revealed in the WikiLeaks files as having been informing the American embassy in Canberra of affairs internal to the Australian Labor Party. Specifically, he was informing America of the removal of an elected Prime Minister and his replacement by Julia Gillard.

Excerpt from US Embassy cable from June 13th 2008 published by Wikileaks in 2010 where Howes discusses Julia Gillard . Note: (Protect) means Howes identity as source was to be kept secret.

In other words, Howes was an American spy that was operating inside the trade union movement and conspiring with a foreign imperialist power to remove the PM and override the political will of the Australian people. His conspiratorial collaborators in this act were Mark Arbib and David Feeney, both Labor Party functionaries and members of Parliament.

Around the same time as the removal of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, Howes was involved as Australian Workers Union secretary, with the scandal surrounding the Cleanevent workers. He represented these workers whose job was mainly to perform cleaning services at major events and festivals. The scandal involved the AWU organising through the company employer the payment of union fees by the employer to incorporate the workers as union members in return for the slashing of working conditions for those very workers. The company would pay the union and the union would negotiate an employment contract that covered the cleaners that removed penalty rates and other lawful conditions of employment. The company was able to save millions of dollars for the small cost of paying union dues. Howes oversaw this.

Paul Howes book published in 2010

Sometime in the middle of this decade, Howes left the leadership of the union movement and politics and was given a contract as a partner at the Australian arm of multinational accounting firm KPMG. He went from union leader to corporate executive. If anything I have said has not altered your perspective of both man and organisation, then this may or if not, you are lost to the working class. Howes has never as an adult worked in a factory or workplace for which the union was supposed to represent. Which raises the question of how is it that union representatives are appointed in the first place.

One might ask, what did Howes’ betrayal of the working class do to promote his candidacy at KPMG? What would have been his role? Remember that KPMG is a firm that plays a role in the superannuation industry also known as the pension fund sector. His protection of corporate interests overriding working class conditions, made his qualification for administering part of the trillions of dollars of workers’ wages invested in superannuation, a strong point of endorsement. Unions in Australia are participants in the management of pension funds for profit.

Which makes Howes’ appointment by right wing Prime Minister Scott Morrison all the clearer. In this promotion, several threads come into unison. Hostility to the working class, support for capital and firm alignment with US imperialism. This development has a long history and Howes is only one of the latest expressions of it. Back in the 1970s, Bob Hawke, ACTU leader was also hostile to the working class, a major supporter of US imperialism and great friend of the capitalist class of Australia. The union movement and its Labor Party support are thoroughly embedded to the capitalist system and moreover to the drive to war lead by American imperialism. Do you want to be part of that train? Never!

Finally, an anecdote. As I was preparing to write this story, I was digging around for information. I first heard this story on the local ABC (government broadcaster) radio. When I typed into the Google search engine, “Howes, Morrison appointment, ABC” nothing came up. Literally NOTHING. The story did appear on Murdoch’s “The Australian” webpage but you had to pay for it to read it in its entirety. The ABC did not present it on its webpages. You can interpret this in any way you like but I thought that the budget pressures on the ABC by the Federal government have not only altered the quality of the work undertaken by the national “broadcaster”  but also the quantity of its work. The expression, Australian Bullshit Corporation is rather apt.

Serious conclusions can be made by examining the why and how Paul Howes was picked for his recent appointment by the far-right Morrison Government’s covid19 economic commission demonstrates that trade unions are thoroughly corrupt and work for capital, government and as tools of US Imperialism. The lack of coverage of this appointment by ABC demonstrates the ABC is truly a state broadcaster acting as another propaganda arm of the government and not at all independent as some want you to believe. As the capitalist crisis continues to deepen, the greater will these facts be brought into relief. The World Socialist Revolution cannot wait.

It is only through and open and robust discussion scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed. Classconscious.org would like to play its role in developing such a culture again. We are attempting to foster debate by publishing articles that may not fully align with the position of our editorial collective.

A Shift in Perspective: Covid and the US working class

by Chris Mason

The total number of COVID-19 infections in the US has now passed the 5 million mark, and the number of dead from the virus exceeds 160,000. If this is a time of strife for the entire nation, it is all the more so for the average worker, particularly those labeled “essential” who don’t enjoy the luxury of working from home. When the nationwide lockdown was announced the US stock markets recorded their worst performance since Black Monday in 1987. The stock market crisis suggested to the wider populace that there is a link between the financial markets and the human labor that goes into the economy.  

Voices from the front line

But these past few months have proven to many workers that the platitudes of the corporations are as hollow as they appear. Many working people are waking up to the fact that they are seen as disposable costs in the corporate drive to maximize profits. This has been made even more apparent by the news that the top 1% of Americans have actually gotten richer during the pandemic. As unemployment increases, many workers are seeing that those in charge of the corporations are unwilling to risk money to employ them, and they would rather sack them to make even more money. The veil of what those at the top actually think about those at the bottom has been thoroughly ripped off by the virus.

Jack: Mailroom worker

This can be seen not just by looking at statistics, but also by actually talking to those workers on the front lines that have been labeled as essential workers. They all share a common experience despite differences in where they live, or their type of job. This pattern is simple, and could even be seen as the equivalent of gaslighting” in an abusive relationship, where the abuser psychologically manipulates the abused party to make them doubt their own perception of reality.

An employer sends out an email, has a small meeting, or even posts something on a bulletin board about how proud they are of the work the employees are doing, how essential they are, and even going so far as calling them ‘heroes’. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this first step, it’s what comes next that makes this treatment borderline abusive. The messages of gratitude and thanks are followed by lackluster personal protection and safety measures against the virus, hardly any increase in pay outside of upper management, and no guarantee that they will stay employed should things get worse. 

Jack, a corporate mailroom employee living in Washington State who has been designated as an essential worker, describes getting periodic emails from his employer. They would always begin: “We’re all so appreciative and proud of your hard work”. But the only measure taken to ensure workers’ continued safety was the single disposable mask in a plastic bag that they all received. 

Mark: UPS worker

Mark, a UPS supervisor in Portland Oregon, described a similar experience where the employees were provided with almost no protective equipment, despite UPS being a company worth $3 billion in net income, and $53 billion in net revenue. The employees had to ask for outside donations in order to get proper masks and gloves for their work. Mark described getting praise from UPS corporate management, and encouragement to keep up the good work. The UPS bosses even talked about how grateful they all are. However, both Mark and Jack’s employers made them feel like they should keep their heads down, and to not complain or they would risk losing their jobs. Mark’s employer would occasionally, after giving workers glowing praise, remind them to be grateful that they even have jobs at all. 

Ryan: Security Guard

Ryan, a security guard in Kansas, talked about how at the onset of the virus, when the prospects of what a lockdown might entail were still unclear, he would receive emails from his company reassuring everyone that there was no need to panic, and they would be able to stay afloat during the pandemic. He recalls that there was a small mention at the end of the email saying how grateful ‘they’ were for everyone’s hard work. Ryan says that now the emails he’s getting never fail to mention how grateful the company is preceding a routine message about changing parking rules, new break times, or something else totally mundane. He says, “Now it just feels like it’s an email signature as if they are obligated to send them and not because they actually mean it”. These obvious platitudes are followed up by no new procedures to keep the work area clean, or to make sure that people coming in and out don’t pose a health risk to other employees. 

All three experiences reflect a broader national trend of companies’ gaslighting their employees while providing no job security, hardly any added safety measures, and no pay increases at all. With Congress deliberating a “corporate liability shield,” the power of workers to sue employers for Covid19 related damages, may be taken out of their hands. If the Democrats and Republicans get their way, employers will be exempt from Covid related litigation by employees.  But the silver lining in all this may be that many workers have experienced a major shift in perspective, realizing what they perhaps already knew—that the very people who go out of their way to make commercials thanking them, rather than giving them any sort of pay increase, actually view them as disposable.

It is only through and open and robust discussion scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed. Classconscious.org would like to play its role in developing such a culture again. We are attempting to foster debate by publishing articles that may not fully align with the position of our editorial collective.

A Marxist history of the police : Part 1 – Repression in the face of revolution

by Stephen James Kerr, 10th August 2020

Today we are publishing the first part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police”. Part 1 will examine how the birth of the industrial working class and the tumult of the bourgeois revolutions drove the need for new forms of repression.

Part 2 will deal with experiments towards a police force in Ireland by Sir Robert Peel, up to the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Part 3 will examine the growing movement for the vote in the aftermath of Peterloo, and reveal how the demands of the workers for suffrage was bound up with the creation of the police. 

Introduction: The “mailed fist” and the “velvet glove”.

A global movement has sprung up in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. This multi-racial movement has brought millions of people into the streets with various demands, ranging from reforming police forces to disarming and defunding them. Black Lives Matter (BLM) has framed the problem of the police exclusively in terms of racism. For BLM, the police exist simply to impose ‘white supremacy’. For BLM, police violence expresses the pervasive ‘structural racism’ embedded within the entire white population, across all social and class lines. Such a view of the police serves to minimalize their actual repressive function, and divides society along a racial rather than class basis.  If we are to see how this system of divide and rule works, we must be especially wary of racialist ‘solutions’ to the problem of police violence. The notion that police forces can be reformed to be ‘non-racist’ isn’t only non-workable, it drives a wedge where the ruling class wants it- between black and white workers. If some black workers and the black middle class can be appeased by sensitivity training programs, more black officers, or merging police forces with social welfare agencies – all of which have been proposed – and, if white workers come to believe that they must shoulder the burden of guilt for the racist violence of white cops, then it will be very difficult for black and white workers to come together and question the very existence of police as an institution, and almost impossible to call into question the continued existence of capitalism, the source of both racism and of police violence. This is precisely the outcome the ruling class wants, and therefore the one we must prevent at all costs. 

If we examine the history of police forces and how they were first created, we begin to see a different picture than that painted by BLM. Modern society was not always policed as it is today. When we consider the history of how police forces were created, a more complex picture emerges. In fact, there were no centralized police agencies in the English-speaking world prior to 1829. First invented in England, they were exported to Canada, the US, and throughout the British Empire. Why they were invented, and how they came to exist in their present form aren’t mere historical curiosities, but rather constitute crucial political questions of contemporary relevance. 

The British capitalist class responded to the great bourgeois-democratic revolutions in America and France and to the rise of the industrial working class in two ways. On the one hand the British elite developed centrally controlled, uniformed police forces, while offering limited, piecemeal reforms to the middle class on the other. While the police were to be deployed against the most militant section of the workers, the better-off sections of workers and the middle class were presented with reforms the better to bind their interests with those of the existing system of class rule. 

If the police are the ‘mailed fist’ of the capitalist state, reform is the ‘velveteen glove’. Both means are deployed with one aim: to split the working class, and prevent its political unification. The more privileged sections of the working class must be convinced they share the same interests as their class oppressors, while the other sections can be ignored, or violently repressed as needed. To be  ‘legitimate’, these processes must bear the imprimatur of democratic consent. For policing to work, the public must permit itself to be policed

This is the story of how and why that permission was obtained. 

The ruling class didn’t suddenly weave this strategy out of whole cloth. It was arrived at by trial and error, and in the face of massive internal and external resistance. In the long run, the combination of mailed fist and velvet glove has proved extremely effective for our rulers. If we, the working class majority, are to unite to destroy the system of class rule once and for all, we need to understand how this system operates to maintain itself.

 This introduction to the history of ‘the police’ will deal with how the English ruling class and the working classes responded to the American and French Revolutions and English policing in the half century from 1749 until 1800.

The industrial revolution and the birth of the working class.

 18th century England was covered by a patchwork of localized ‘police’ institutions, with varying standards and responsibilities, and no accountability to any centralized authority. Each town or parish organized its own ‘night watch’ comprised of local volunteers. These were mainly concerned with thieving, which was then a capital offence. Otherwise it was the responsibility of an aggrieved party to privately use the courts to bring alleged criminals to public justice. The night watchmen could be variably corrupt, lazy or otherwise incompetent. 

In times of civil unrest, the state called upon either the army or the ‘yeomanry’ – small landowners, or minor gentry, who owned horses to form ad hoc mounted, armed brigades- which could be called upon to impose force on insurgents, usually peasants, but later workers and tradespeople. It was common for rebels to be cut down with swords or shot. Treason was punished with being hung, disemboweled, and then cut into four pieces while alive. Petty theft was a capital crime. There was little due process of law for any but the wealthy. It was a brutal society.

Bow St Runners – circa 1800

 Henry Fielding, author of the novel Tom Jones, established London’s first private police force, the ‘Bow Street Runners’ in 1749. Operating out of the Bow Street magistrate’s office, Fielding’s was a private agency of eight men, who also received payments from the government. Their primary day-to-day activities consisted of pursuing thieves. They were also involved in monitoring political opposition.

The material basis of growing political opposition to the British government was the growth of the immense new productive forces of industrialism, and the extraction and accumulation of unheard-of surpluses from colonial plunder in India, the Caribbean, Africa and North America. Prior to the period of mercantilism and rising industrialism, peasant farmers and small trades people had produced the vast majority of wealth in England on the land with the surplus appropriated by wealthy landowners. This formed the basis of the wealth of the landed gentry, who sat atop a political system that justified and preserved their place. 

The industrial revolution of the middle 1700s created new classes of wealthy merchants and then wealthy industrialists. These developments also created an immense new social class – the working class, out of peasants and craftsmen displaced by these new inventions, and who had no means to live but by the sale of their labour power. 

 In his introduction to ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England,’ Engels noted:

With these inventions… the victory of machine-work over hand-work in the chief branches of English industry was won; and the history of the latter from that time forward simply relates how the hand-workers have been driven by machinery from one position after another. The consequences of this were, on the one hand, a rapid fall in price of all manufactured commodities, prosperity of commerce and manufacture, the conquest of nearly all the unprotected foreign markets, the sudden multiplication of capital and national wealth; on the other hand, a still more rapid multiplication of the proletariat, the destruction of all property-holding and of all security of employment for the working-class, demoralization, political excitement.” 

England’s 50 years of riots

Though they created much of 18th century England’s wealth, the emergent social forces were barred from participating in official political life. The vote was restricted to the landed gentry. But the common people reserved to themselves the right to comment on politics. Expression of popular opinion was very important in 18thcentury England, with the proliferation of newspapers and political cartoons. The people also reserved to themselves the right to riot in the streets. 

Without an official channel to express their opinions, violent riots involving masses of people were the only real means for the common folk to make their views known. Street unrest was far more common in 18th century England than today. 

A newspaper account from The London Gazette of October 8, 1763 describes how traditional journeymen silk weavers “and a great number of other evil minded persons, masked and disguised, and armed with Cutlasses and other dangerous Weapons, assembled at different Hours of the Day, and also in the Night-time, about the Houses of several other journeyman silk weavers… and in a most outrageous and riotous manner, broke open said Houses, and cut and destroyed the silk works in the looms…” Workers without the vote did not bother their MP. They took the streets, and often, over many issues, not only such labour actions. 

The political system in Britain was unsuited to respond to the displacements of industrialism. It remains to this day a relic, which had been pieced together over the previous 800 years. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had, to a certain extent, subordinated the King to Parliament, resulting in what Blackstone refers to as a ‘mixed constitution’ containing elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy embodied in the institutions of ‘King, Lords and Commons.’ This notion had a pedigree going all the way back to Aristotle and Cicero, but it was fitted to a static, agrarian society which industrialism was beginning to tear apart. 

A political explosion – the American and French Revolution

The American and later the French revolutions exploded the happy slumber of England’s mixed constitution. The mass sympathy which the American revolution evoked in the English common people first caused the British aristocracy and wealthy classes to react, and to contemplate the formation of a centralized police force. 

Historian Tom Mackaman summarizes the intellectual ferment:

 “The American Revolution was a product of the Enlightenment—that period of discovery emerging from the darkness of the medieval world-view that had seen in all that existed the unchanging work of God. Defying the wrath of the church, natural philosophers—scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Bruno—began to question the natural world. Simultaneously, political philosophers such as Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Voltaire and Montesquieu began to ask questions about the social order. What was the nature of sovereignty? Why do Kings and parliaments rule? Or, as Rousseau put it, why is it “that man is born free, and yet everywhere is in chains?” 

The Declaration of Independence and the book, Common Sense by Thomas Paine posed that question squarely to the embryonic English working class. These caused an immediate ferment in Europe, and sparked immediate sympathy with workers across Europe.

It’s worthwhile to quote briefly from the Declaration, whose most crucial, revolutionary passage is known to billions of people today:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The notion that the ‘consent of the governed’ was required for any government to be considered legitimate was a radical new idea in 1776. Still more radical, was the claim that the people have the right to ‘alter or abolish’ governments with which they disagree. But it was an idea that was increasingly appealing to the British merchant class and the then embryonic working class, which had already been in political sympathy with the plight of the colonies for years.

“The merchants of the City of London and of other expanding citiesof the new middle class in England identified their own interests closely with those of the colonists. The London press, almost without exception, was the voice of this class. With the introduction of the tax on the colonists’ trade in molasses and sugar in 1764, the London Chronicle at once reported from the west coast port of Bristol, which dependedon the American trade, that “the principal merchants of the city intend to support with all their interest the independent free trade of the American colonies.” 

The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas

In 1780, at the height of the US War of Independence, unrest broke out in London and the government lost control of the streets for several days. The ‘Gordon Riots’ erupted out of a cacophony of demands of the poor, for political representation, much of it couched in anti-Catholic prejudice in this instance. Their targets were not the Catholic poor but rather ‘persons of high station.’ Regiments of the British Army put down these riots, with several hundred rioters killed. In the immediate aftermath of these riots, bills were brought forth to establish a system of centralized policing on the French model which was notorious in England for its repressiveness. Still even an apprehended insurrection at home and the loss of the colonies in North America could not forge enough support in the Commons to pass such measures. But demands for the vote were growing, inspired by the revolt of the Colonies. 

The storming of the Bastille July 14th 1789

The years 1789 to 1791 were crucial for the further development of English radicalism. The French Revolution, and the execution of the Bourbon King, threw up yet another question mark over the English Constitution. The French Revolution offered a universal Declaration of the Rights of Man, which consciously reached beyond the borders of France, as a challenge to every single crowned head of Europe. It is worth quoting from:

1. “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. 

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. 

3. The principle of all sovereignty resides essentially in the nation. No body nor individual may exercise any authority which does not proceed directly from the nation. 

4. Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything, which injures no one else; hence the exercise of the natural rights of each man has no limits except those which assure to the other members of the society the enjoyment of the same rights. These limits can only be determined by law. 

5. Law can only prohibit such actions as are hurtful to society. Nothing may be prevented which is not forbidden by law, and no one may be forced to do anything not provided for by law. 

6. Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation. It must be the same for all, whether it protects or punishes. All citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally eligible to all dignities and to all public positions and occupations, according to their abilities, and without distinction except that of their virtues and talents. 

This went far beyond the American Revolution. The English ruling class was horrified. Following on from the French Revolution, the slave uprising in Sainte Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791 further threatened British imperial conquests in the Caribbean by disrupting markets for sugar and slaves, and drew political sympathy in the English working and middle classes for the insurgents. The movement to abolish slavery in England was at its height. 

Revenge taken by the Black Army for the Cruelties practised on them by the French”. Illustration by British soldier and self-admitted “admirer of Toussaint L’Ouverture” Marcus Rainsford

The Haitian revolution radicalized the anti-slavery movement in England, lending it a decidedly republican character, and caused the British government to cool on ending the slave trade. The publication of The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine that year sent further shockwaves through British society, as Paine called upon the British to rise up and establish a democracy as had just been done in France. As republican political clubs formed in London, Paine’s works, printed in cheap penny editions became the most widely read books after the Bible. 

Response to revolution – The velvet glove of reform

The British ruling class also established a ‘respectable’ society to advocate for very limited parliamentary reforms, ‘The Society of Friends of the People’ led by Sir Charles Grey and Sir Charles Fox. Here we begin to see the strategy of co-optation emerging. This was not a popular organization, but a private gentlemen’s debating club. Membership cost the not insubstantial sum of two gold Guineas per year,, and one could only become a member by being nominated by other members. Unsurprisingly, this society disavowed any support for republicanism. 

Fired by Paine’s writing, and inspired by the quickening of the French Revolution, the London Corresponding Society was established in 1792 to agitate for parliamentary reform, and the extension of suffrage to all working people, including women. Its membership and activities spread rapidly across the country. This was a indeed a popular movement. 

Membership in the LCS was open to all who agreed with the statement that “…the welfare of these kingdoms require that every adult person, in possession of his reason, and not incapacitated by crimes, should have a vote for a Member of Parliament.” Its members were tailors, glaziers, hatters, carpenters and other craftsmen, or to Edmund Burke “the lowest vulgar.” 

Where Paine’s ideas promised liberty and bread for the working classes and independent tradespeople, Edmund Burke prescribed that “Patience, labour, sobriety, frugality and religion should be recommended to them; all the rest is downright fraud.” 

The LCS in contrast, according to Burke “audaciously assumed the task of watching over the transactions of Parliament, and of limiting the boundaries to its powers, threatening destruction if it dared to transgress them…. The Corresponding Society had laid before the Constitutional Society a scheme for calling together a convention of the people, manifestly for the purpose of dissolving the government and lodging the supreme power in their own hands.” 

Response to revolution – the “mailed fist” of the hired mob

Still wedded to traditional modes of thinking, the British aristocracy set about forming ad-hoc associations to repress the new revolutionary ferment – riot vs riot. 

The Association for Protecting Liberty and Property Against Republicans and Levelers was formed late 1792, and quickly spread across the country, mobilizing violent mobs in support of ‘Church and King.’ A dictionary definition from 1795 openly suggests there was a direct link between the Associations and the British Government. “Mob – Church and King, – a species of regular militia, kept in pay by the Ministry, for the protection of property against Levelers and Republicans.” This was the alternative to police. 

According to E.P. Thompson, “a mob was a very useful supplement to the magistrates in a nation that was scarcely policed.” The mobs persecuted reformists and their supporters. In one instance, a “leading Jacobin was ‘tied in the saddle of a dragoon’s horse, whilst the mad and bigoted populace stuck pins in his legs.” And in another, “houses of reformers were broken open and persons dragged out, halters were put on their necks, and they were plunged into the muddy waters at the side of town.” 

 According to the Association’s pamphlets, “The press daily produced malevolent writings, in which the Constitution was calumniated, and every sanction of Society was attacked; all ranks, but especially the lower, were inflamed by insinuations of grievances, the soldiers and seamen were tempted from their duty, the artisans and labourers were made dissatisfied with their fate of honest industry… All were instructed to regard the present Establishment as an oppression, and excited to follow the example of France in setting up Equality of Ranks and Liberty without any bounds.” 

Ruling class panic at the execution of Louis leads to the suspension of civil rights in England

Inspired by the progress of the revolution in France, in 1792 and ‘93 republicans organized ‘The British Convention’, to which Burke referred above. It held two meetings, both in Scotland where mild proposals for parliamentary reform were put forward, and greetings to the group were read out from the United Irishmen, and also from republicans in Wales. The meetings had been infiltrated by agents of the British government, which was panicked by the execution of King Louis on 21 January 1793 by the National Convention of France.

Prime Minister, Sir William Pitt, suspended Habeas Corpus and charged  leading members of the LCS with sedition and treason. The traditional punishment for this crime underlines the panic of the Pitt government.

E.P Thompson relates how the penalty for Treason was “that he should be hanged by the neck, cut down while still alive, disemboweled (and his entrails burned before his face) and then be beheaded and quartered” and how, unable to stomach the penalty, the jury acquitted the LCS leaders to the jubilation of the London citizenry, if not His Majesty’s government.

While the government made use of terrorism and violent unreason in the streets, it made full use of violent reason in the Commons and the Courts. The Terror of the French Revolution has been mythologized in direct proportion to the extent the terror of the English counter-revolution has been buried. Consider the various repressive measures undertaken by the British government against its own people:

Mass meeting of 100,00 at Copenhagen House – satarical cartoon by Gilray

Habeas Corpus was suspended in 1794 in order to effectively suppress the movement for a Constitutional Convention of the “swinish multitude.” This did not stop the agitation. Demonstrations for the vote continued to mount. On October 26th, 1795 (after a very poor harvest which resulted in famine) a demonstration of more than 100,000 assembled at Copenhagen Fields where it was proposed to organize “the whole nation… combined in one grand Political Association.” Thompson relates how, “A remonstrance was addressed to the King. ‘Whenceforth in the midst of apparent plenty, are we thus compelled to starve? Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want?” 

Three days later King George’s carriage was stoned on its way to the opening of Parliament. The government responded with two Acts that made such demands and demonstrations illegal. The Treasonable Practices Act made it high treason to “within the realm or without compass, imagine, invent, devise or intend death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint, of the person of … the King.” This act set English liberties back to the Dark Ages before Magna Carta.

Stoning of the King’s carriage as depicted by James Gilray (1795)

The Seditious Meetings Act restricted public meetings to no more than 50 people. To hold a meeting of any size on a political topic, permission from a magistrate had to be obtained. In 1798 the Newspaper Publication Act restricted the printing of newspapers. In that same year, the Bow Street Runners were expanded. Finally, in 1799 the government passed the Combinations Act, which forbade groups of working people from organizing together in trade unions to improve conditions and made strikes illegal. The Seditious Societies Act forbade political institutions organized on a national basis, directly targeting any future growth of corresponding societies. 

 Thus by 1800 the English ruling class by the stroke of their pens had destroyed the popular freedoms, out of fear of the English people themselves. This situation could not last forever. The following 30 years would see even greater social upheavals leading to the first parliamentary reforms, and the formation of ‘the police’ to contain any further democratic aspirations of the people. 

It is only through and open and robust discussion scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed. Classconscious.org would like to play its role in developing such a culture again. We are attempting to foster debate by publishing articles that may not fully align with the position of our editorial collective.