A Marxist History of the Police, Part Three: the crisis of the English Bourgeoisie

By Stephen James Kerr, 14th September 2020

Today we are publishing the third part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police” which examines the balance of class forces in 1820 Britain. To understand the emergence of the police, an appraisal of the relative positions of the working aristocracy, bourgeoisie and working class in British society after Peterloo is necessary.

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.

Part 2: Experimenting on the Irish, examined how the experiments towards a police force in Ireland by Sir Robert Peel, up to the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

“I have never seen a class so deeply demoralised, so incurably debased by selfishness, so corroded within, so incapable of progress, as the English bourgeoisie. and I mean by this, especially the bourgeoisie proper, particularly the Liberal, Corn Law repealing bourgeoisie.”


“Such were the difficulties of the bourgeoisie, even at the beginning of its career; it needed the people yet feared them, and wanted to keep the Monarchy as a check against democracy…”


The Aristocracy – A Portrait of a Rotten Class

England. 1820. “The King is dead. Long live the King.”

George III, mad, bad and unable to rule since 1795 has finally passed away and left the Crown to his eldest son. George IV is fat, gluttonous, a lecher, drug addicted, and deeply unpopular. He inherits an unstable political situation smoldering with insurrection. He will expire ten years later on the eve of a social and political revolution like the social class he led— bloated, blind and broken.

A Voluptuary Under the Horrors of Digestion 1792: Jame’s Gillray’s brutal caricature of George, Prince of Wales encapsulates the effects of uncontrolled self-indulgence upon the heir to the British throne.

Immediately beneath the corpulent King rested a mostly idle aristocratic layer of inherited rank. The aristocracy could sense that it’s once unquestionable social position was now socially questionable. Its once immense wealth was now less immense. Its former potency was declining into limp impotence. Where once the country rang out with cries of ‘Church and King’ it now rang out with ‘Equal Representation.’ Where once its thousand-acre estates were the finest in the county, some were now dwarfed by a merchant’s tacky pile. Where once the peasants and workers had bowed down, they now rose up. This reality was too much to bare.

It was thus in the 1820s that the British aristocracy slowly began its retreat from life, which continues to the present day, into a senescent fantasy world, cultivating its own specially accented English, refining its already fine manners to sharp points only to be cut by them, gazing at its self-inflicted wounds with innocent astonishment. Yet, the aristocrats still clung to their arrogance, as it floated, suspended in mid-air. It held them up, above the real world which was thriving, but dirty.

While the merchant classes could read, invest the money of the landed aristos in their joint stock companies and return fat profits, the bourgeois would never be able to speak properly. And so, in the 1820s, the landed gentry began to float away, above society, powered by elongated vowels, crisp consonants, and daddy’s money. Yet this dead social class maintained its grip upon Parliament, the Lords, the Church, the growing bureaucracy, and upon political legitimacy.

Beneath this old crust of ‘old corruption’ there was not one, but two vital, powerful social forces rising up. The first of these was the bourgeoisie.

The Unfinished Bourgeois Revolution

The fraud of social position allocated by birthright had been debunked by Thomas Paine‘s “The Rights of Man” two generations previously. But the hereditarian lie was being written into history by the bourgeois class itself. Through their subordination of the emergent working classes in the factories, the capitalists ‘created’ the new wealth of the industrial revolution. At least they controlled it. Britain had become the world’s first capitalist empire, even if most capitalists had no vote in 1820. But they lacked complete control of the statewhose traditional forms of organization were no longer suited to advancing the growth and productivity of the new industrial system. This is the key to understanding the emergence of the police as a social institution of modern bourgeois rule.

English Civil War recruitment wooden print

The initial, primitive forms of the rule of the English bourgeoisie had been established after the English Revolution of the 17th century. For a time, the institutions established by this first revolution, occupying the space created by the smashing of the old institutions, permitted the emergent capitalist class to expand its wealth, power and influence. It’s important to note that the economic transformations which gave birth to the first English bourgeois revolution and the Civil War, were “changes in land ownership, and in the volume of production rather than in the technique of production. So the changes had no revolutionary effect on society as a whole.” [i] It was the expansion of trade and industry “within a given system of technical equipment” [ii] which first propelled the English bourgeoisie towards political power in 1642. But it could not go all the way. The bourgeois revolution was unfinished, to the extent that the economic basis for the bourgeoisie as a politically independent social class was only then emergent. Production was limited by technique to the level of handicrafts. The low level of the productive forces at this time necessitated that the English bourgeoisie make a political accommodation with the traditional ruling class, which it did when it invited Charles II to return as King. The results of this accommodation remain with us to this day.

It was the industrial revolution of the 1700s which formed the material basis for the rule of the bourgeoisie as a politically independent social class, which required new institutions of class rule. These new institutions would serve the ends of the bourgeoisie – the accumulation of capital and maximization of profits.

There were many obstacles in the way of the most optimal social conditions for the maximization of industrial profits. These took the form of various ‘traditions.’ Workers and peasants had too many traditional holidays, and these varied regionally. The enclosure of the common lands was still incomplete, though ongoing. By 1820, the rapidly growing government bureaucracies were traditionally run and staffed based on a patronage system; and responsible variously to the King, to local gentry, or else to a government Minister. Local customs and traditions meant that methods applied to managing the same task in one county, might be completely alien to those applied in the next. The traditional allocation of seats in Parliament meant that industrial towns producing much of Britain’s wealth had no representation. The wealthy shopkeeper or factory owner had no vote. In terms of police functions, the local yeomanry traditionally assigned the task of keeping the peasants and workers in line owed their allegiance to the local squires who were their landlords, though by 1820 the Yeomanry in the industrial towns were shopkeepers. But the shopkeepers made poor horsemen compared to the landed aristos. The military regiments tasked with repressing riots owed their allegiance exclusively to the Crown. This leant policing a local, particular, and simultaneously political character.

In contrast to this traditionalist localism, industrialism in production cut across all traditions, creating social and economic conditions of a universal character. The universal signifier of value was now money. The universal arbiters of technique in production were now the laws of physics and chemistry. It is absurd to consider ‘local tradition’ in the smelting of iron, or the spinning of cotton, or the manufacture of pins, for example. The scientific rationalization of production, combined with the price mechanisms of the market, destroyed the material basis for all such local, irrational practices; and this market rationalism destroyed the practices themselves. Anyone who stuck to ‘the traditional means of manufacturing pins’ for tradition’s sake, was destined to be stuck on the pin of economic ruin.

Despite their inefficiency, forms of social and political organization conducted outside of the industrial process, hung on ‘long past their sell-by date.’ It was the escalating conflict between the drive for bourgeois profits, and the dead weight of the traditional political / social organization, which shaped class conflict of late Regency England, to the Great Reform of 1832 and still later. The systems of political organization which had liberated the emergent capitalist class in 1640, had by 1820 come to be known by the epithet, ‘Old Corruption.’ They were no longer suited to a new economy that produced not only a mountain of new wealth, but a novel social class with its own emerging set of interests—the working class. The Bourgeois were themselves driven to create their own novel institutions of class rule because there was a new and powerful force rising up below their feet, and they wished to suppress and control its power. The profitable accumulation of their own capital depended upon it.

The Working Class emerges: into the ‘dark satanic mills”

Lancashire Cotton Mill 1835

Imagine the sheer horror that the first displaced cotton weavers must have felt when they entered Noah Arkwright’s steam powered industrial cotton mill in 1790.

They would have been formerly semi-independent producers, working in the relative comfort and security of their own home under the ‘putting out’ system, where a tradesman supplied them with the raw material to spin and weave into cloth, for which he then paid them on a piece rate basis. Having at least a measure of control over the terms of their own labour, they would have felt relatively secure in their small cottage, perhaps cultivating a garden on lands held in common. They had once taken pride in their craft, the work of their own hands, over which they had control and of how and when to deploy their skills. They occupied a relatively secure, although low social position, the same one occupied by their ancestors. People so situated could feel themselves to have a ‘stake in the country’ and were not motivated to question the established order, of which they felt themselves a part.

Potato Planters by Jean-Francois Millet

But no more. New machinery combined with capitalism and steam power to put an end to that way of life by rendering its economic basis obsolete.

Crossing the factory gates, once proud people were reduced instantly to the condition of slaves. What ‘pride’ could they feel in the work of standing at a machine loom for 12 to 14 hours per day, repeating a single step in the production process fifty thousand times? How horrifying was the dark, dusty and dangerous factory, where one could lose a finger, a hand or be burned to death by steam? The constant anxiety of the industrial worker of 1790 can scarce be imagined.

And yet the factory was also the worker’s only means of subsistence. Hell was also salvation. Outside the factory gates lay starvation, and there was in 1820 a lot of starvation. A surplus of workers waited to take the place of anyone injured or dismissed from factory labour. When we try to imagine this reality we get some sense of one of the meanings of the English word ‘reduced.’ One is reduced from something else to the status of a ‘worker.’ One is transformed from a feeling human being into an interchangeable cog in an immense and impersonal machine which spat out not only immense amounts of cotton, iron and other goods, but fabulous monetary profits. The whole purpose of their work and thus their life had been transformed. People could be set to work at anything at all on this new basis.  Cotton cloth, iron or ceramics – the very things in which the workers once took pride – were likewise reduced. They became just the ‘thing in the middle’ of a mechanical process that converted a small pile of money into a far larger pile of money. They now labored to produce not cotton cloth, not pig iron, not coal, not ceramics but only money – for the industrial capitalist. The skills of their hands were useless. They experienced raw alienation.

The factory owner – the first cop on the beat?

Acceptance of these new, unimaginable conditions of work, also required the application of force against the workers in the factory itself. The first generation of industrial workers were accustomed to a far more leisurely pace of work in handicrafts or in the fields. The old habits were sometimes literally beaten out of them by overseers. Failure to follow ‘the rules’ could result in instant dismissal and impoverishment. There was always another starving wretch eager  to step in to take their place. Thus were formerly peaceful people set at war against each other, and against their own will.

It was also the participation of the workers in the new work process itself which transformed their consciousness. The discipline of the machines set the pace of work for each worker. If a single individual were to stop work or slow their pace, the whole line of production might be stopped. The machines might ‘jam up.’ Workers thus became the servants of machines, which were the first targets of their outrage. The penalty for ‘machine breaking’ was death.

The other aspect of this process was that early individual capitalists became the direct enforcers of ‘timed labour discipline.’ The standardization and rationalization of the worker’s labour time was entirely novel, and fiercely resisted, and so required that the workers be supervised and watched over at every turn. The first ‘cop’ in history was thus not one of the Bow Street Runners, nor was he a Yeoman. The first real beat cop was a bourgeois factory owner, walking the rows between machines with his eyes peeled for any delinquency.

In this sense the bourgeois factory owner or his overseers directly took on a policing role of every aspect of the worker’s productive life: what time they arrived and what time they left, if they spoke or not, if they took a break, how they moved and performed their tasks. Where previously, labour hours had been under the craftsman’s own control, now their behavior was dictated to them on a timed schedule.

For the first time, working people came face to face with their ‘rulers’ on a near constant basis. Previously the craftsman only rarely, if ever, had to endure face to face dealings with the nobility, who would never have dreamt of standing over the worker, telling him or her how to do their job.

Cartoon by Robert Cruikshank of children being beaten entitled “English factory slaves: Their daily employment”.

As the social bonds of tradition and locale were broken, new bonds were forged. A factory might employ hundreds of people from many different counties, speaking with different local dialects. People who would never have met or related to each other before now shared a common social experience of extreme exploitation, brutality and oppression.

A working class movement with bourgeois demands

This shared experience of industrial production in the ‘Satanic Mills’ transformed what had once been groups of strangers from the verdant hills of different counties, and later from different countries, into a single social class. But this process took many decades. By 1820 the differentiation of the workers as a social class was still in its development. The working class was not yet truly advancing its own demands.

The Peterloo demonstration was powered by the anger of the emergent working class, but mostly took up the political demands of the bourgeoisie. The demonstration was supposed to take the form of the mock election of Henry Hunt as MP for Manchester, a borough unrepresented in Parliament. A successful farmer turned orator and an advocate of radical democratic reform during the Napoleonic Wars, Hunt was a talented speaker who regularly appealed for annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the reform of parliament’s ‘rotten boroughs.’ In all of these demands, the specific interests of the working class were submerged. The efforts of the demonstration’s organizers to keep the action within the bounds of the existing laws – the law they were protesting – was famously noted.

Samuel Bamford, one of the organizers, wrote,

“On the bank of an open field on our left I perceived a gentleman observing us attentively. He beckoned me, and I went to him. He was one of my late employers. He took my hand, and rather concernedly, but kindly, said he hoped no harm was intended by all those people who were coming in. I said “I would pledge my life for their entire peaceableness.” I asked him to notice them, “did they look like persons wishing to outrage the law? were they not, on the contrary, evidently heads of decent working families? or members of such families?” “No, no,” I said, “my dear sir, and old respected master, if any wrong or violence take place, they will be committed by men of a different stamp from these.”” [iii]

Immediately after the Peterloo Massacre, middle-class Radicals circulated a petition to display solidarity with the protestors. The petition publicly declared that the protest was peaceful and condemned the violence exercised by the yeomanry. After collecting the signatures the petition was printed in this pamphlet form, shown here, in 1820.

Despite the many outrages of industrialism, the unfinished nature of the bourgeois political revolution had the effect of keeping working class demands confined to the fulfilment of that revolution. It would not remain so.

The crisis of the bourgeoisie – caught in a vice between two classes

The bourgeois of 1820 understood his own situation more clearly than did the worker. With the benefit of a classical education, and an historical perspective informed by a reading of the scholarship of antiquity, the bourgeois factory owner judged even a little democracy to be a very dangerous thing indeed. Cicero, Thucydides and Plato all agreed: Plebeian power had been the destruction of Athens and Rome. So the English bourgeoise was placed in the grip of a political vise. Faced with a more powerful social class aspiring to power beneath it, and a decadent social class above it, the English bourgeoisie joined forces with the landed aristocracy. This was a social layer with whom the bourgeois had longstanding, deep economic relationships. Thus the English bourgeoisie took its place as the managerial head of the English mixed constitution, leaving in place the superstitious majesty of ‘The Crown’, all the better to befuddle the workers.

And so we read in a history of British Conservatism that, “The predominant Conservative strategy since the Revolutionary Wars may be characterized as ‘Peelite’ – that is to say a cautious adaptation to change, an eschewance of hard reaction…” [iv]  Why the seeming ‘eschewance of hard reaction’? It is because the bourgeoisie transformed ‘hard reaction’ into a permanent social institution in civil disguise.

 We call that institutionalization of ‘hard reaction’ the police.

 While the class standing at the head of production in 1820 found itself still politically disabled, a new class was rising below it, demanding its own power. The class standing at the head of the state was no longer the economically productive class. Such a situation could not be long maintained.

 The rising British capitalist class was not driven to overthrow and smash the old aristocracy of blood, as the far less developed French bourgeoisie had done. Whereas the French bourgeoisie was compelled to overthrow the absolutist order which excluded it from access to state power, the English bourgeoisie became the vital aspect of the traditional state, over a period of 200 years. It is this crisis of the English bourgeoisie which leads directly to the development of the police.

 The bourgeoisie was politically dependent upon the aristocrats, but economically dependent upon the labour of workers. The workers were accustomed to riot in the streets in defense of their economic and political rights. They were accustomed to far friendlier conditions of life. The aristocrats were accustomed to cut the workers down in the street with swords if they rebelled. The bourgeoisie had no direct control over the means of repression of the new working class outside of the factory system, where they exercised total control. Further, the kind of worker they required – disciplined, and devoted to their employer’s betterment, was a rare commodity. Real human beings with unpredictable, inconvenient needs and wants got in the way of the production of profits. These would have to be disciplined into the kinds of workers the bourgeois class required to produce profits. Finally, the constant agitation of the working class for equal representation such as American and French workers enjoyed, threatened to erupt into revolt which could displace the bourgeoisie from its position. This had to be stopped.

 As a result of this economic, political and social crisis, the English bourgeoisie thus came to require a novel institution of class rule – police.

 Peterloo had put the whole problem of how to manage the rising working class into stark relief.

1819 print depicting the Peterloo Massacre

The traditional means of violent repression had backfired, creating mass outrage, which threatened not only the peaceful accumulation of profits, but the constitutional political order which facilitated such accumulation.

 The traditional means of organizing such repression was not responsible to the bourgeois class. The traditional means reported to the aristocratic land-owning class and the King.

 The traditional means of repression were also a patchwork beyond the control of any central agency, unlike a factory, in which all means were directed towards a single end and by a single owner.

 Finally, the bourgeois owner needed a social institution to discipline the worker outside of the factory gate, in a manner similar in form, if lesser in degree and frequency, to that power which disciplined his own workers inside of those gates. They needed not just to create new piles of money, but also new piles of men; men who would be perfectly suited to creating new piles of money.

 The bourgeoisie found its fortune in the factory by rationalizing craft skills on a scientific basis into a system of mechanized production, thus creating a universal pattern which could be replicated elsewhere. It took a similar approach to the creation of its institutions of class rule.

 The bourgeoisie wanted to create a means of social organization and class rule that could be replicated based upon formulas analogous to the plans for an industrial machine. They sought to create new institutions of class rule which could be assembled from a set of plans, just like a machine, in order to pump out the norms of bourgeois class rule anywhere on earth, like filthy water sprayed out of a hose. A combination of laws, both representational administrative and punitive, were developed with one aim – to solidify the rule of the English bourgeoisie. But this class rule would function within the political framework of the traditional constitution, which stood by, mostly harmless and neutral, above the real action. This was ‘hard reaction’ institutionalized with a civil veneer.

 This form of class rule would also have a profoundly conservatizing effect on the political orientation of the English working class, to the advantage of the bourgeoisie.

 The bourgeoisie was faced with a political and organizational question – how to maintain their rule, once they assumed their proper place as the co-managers of the English mixed constitution? What social institutions would need to be established that would give bourgeois rule over the workers full expression? More than any other single figure, Sir Robert Peel set about creating the institutions of bourgeois rule in the United Kingdom. These included various legal reforms, Catholic emancipation, reform of the bureaucracy, a reformed Parliament which granted the vote to the bourgeoisie, and the creation of the police. All of these will be explored in the next chapter.

And finally, one further thought….

 This analysis has political implications for our own age. The English bourgeoisie had staged an abortive revolution in the English Civil War. The economic accomplishments of that revolution were realized in the war and subsequently, while the political conquest of the English state by the bourgeoisie took another two centuries to realize. We must now ask, what are the political implications following from the economic transition from the outmoded nation-state system to that of a globally integrated social production driven by the coordinated labour power of working people? What political and historical tasks are yet to be realized? The answer is all of them. The potential leap forward in social development by the political realization of the existing economic power of the working class on a world scale is staggering to imagine.

It is our task to complete the revolution.