A Marxist History of the Police, Part 4. Building the New Institutions of Class Rule – Crime and Imprisonment

By Stephen James Kerr

Today we are publishing the fourth part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police” which 

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.

Part 3: the crisis of the English Bourgeoisie, examines the relative positions of the aristocracy, bourgeoisie and working class in British society after Peterloo in relation to why the police were necessary.


It’s received wisdom today that ‘police exist to fight crime.’ But before police existed, crime was fought. But by the early 19th century, traditional definitions of crime and the way they were prosecuted had been rendered outdated and inefficient by the growth of new means of production – the factory system. Before the police were created to control the working class, the legal and punitive framework for such control was firmly established. The police came later. Thus the emergence of the legal framework in which police could operate effectively deserves careful study. Surprising relationships are revealed.

Rationalizing the Law – the better to ensnare the working class

Much is made by some historians of Peel’s sweeping legal reforms of the 1820s. Many have taken them as marking an era of ‘liberalization’ – a word which they lift out of context to imply some sort of socially beneficial progress. There is certainly progressive content in ending the death penalty for petty crimes, for example. But that’s not the whole story. We need to critically examine the reasons which the legal reformists themselves gave for their own campaigns. They are not what one would expect.

The early 19th century legal reformists such as Romilly and Peel speak very plainly about their aims. The English bourgeoisie was with these legal reforms simply acting in its own class interests, creating a legal framework for its rule under a new, industrial system, to which the old ‘bloody code’ constituted just one more fetter on the accumulation of capital. There was absolutely nothing beneficent about it. Rather, the bourgeoisie was further refining its own particular barbarism, just as the factory had refined it, just as the steam engine had magnified it.

Capital crimes during the early phase of bourgeois rule

From the year 1688 to 1800, English law increased the number of capital crimes from 50 odd to more than 200. This period also coincides exactly with the period which we have identified as the ‘primitive’ form of the rule of the bourgeois class. The material basis of this rule was handicraft production under a capitalist system. The political basis of this rule remained under the traditional constitution and the landed gentry. The legal basis of this rule was accumulated ancient precedent. The punitive basis became the death penalty.

The spirit of Puritanism is evident in of some of the crimes for which the death penalty was mandated prior to 1823 – ‘being in the company of gypsies for more than one month’ and ‘strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7-14.’ Surely such moral corruption could not be countenanced to live.

But most capital crimes punished theft of the property of the rich by the poor. In 1723, after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble, Parliament passed “An Act for the more effectual punishing wicked and evil disposed Persons going armed in Disguise and doing Injuries and Violence to the Persons and Properties of His Majesty’s Subject, and for the more speedy bringing the Offenders to Justice.” This became known as the ‘Black Act’, as it was ostensibly drawn up to combat a campaign of game poaching by displaced peasants who blackened their faces with soot to escape identification. The Act added 50 new capital crimes to the statute books.

Portrait of Jeremiah Brandreth, one of the “Petntrich Martyrs” and one of last men in England sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for treason.

Most infamous among all of the capital offenses was that of ‘Grand Larceny’ which at that time referred to any theft of an item worth more than 12 pence – a shilling, which was a trifling amount. This was the average price of two loaves of bread during the 1700s. [i]

In 1823 the death penalty was removed for various offenses of theft, after a failed attempt in 1810 motivated by Romilly in the House, but which did not pass The Lords. The 1823 reform gave judges discretion as to how to apply the death penalty. It remained mandatory for the offences of treason, murder, counterfeiting, and setting fire to the property of the British Navy.

Readers new to this material might rightly ask – if in 1823 the British government was reacting to various uprisings, conspiracies to assassinate the Cabinet, and the constant threat of a revolution a la Francaise breaking out, how did have time, and why was it inclined to reduce the number of capital crimes? Should it not have increased them instead?

Traditional Loopholes

The key to understanding lies in the traditional practices by which these extreme laws were actually executed. Between 1780 and 1820 there were approximately 33,000 death penalty convictions, but only 7000 executions. Juries and judges found all kinds of ways to either avoid or else commute a death sentence. For an example of avoidance, in cases of Grand Larceny the Jury might demur as to the actual value of the stolen property. A value of 11 pence as opposed to 12 would secure clemency, and save the judge from having to pronounce the death sentence, which could easily spark a riot if the public were outraged by it.

One legal device to grant clemency was something called ‘benefit of clergy.’ This ancient concept exempted clergymen from the rule of secular courts and the common law, in favour of their judgement in ecclesiastical courts under canon law. It dated from the Middle Ages. But as the ecclesiastical courts declined it evolved into a legal loop hole by which first time offenders under threat of the death penalty could be let off in the secular courts. It was widely applied.

The abolition of the ancient and outdated punishments as well as the traditional loopholes was NOT an attempt to make English laws more lenient, but only to make them more efficient and rational, in the service of a new mode of production, and on its emergent system of class rule, which were dependent upon reason, and not upon tradition. The intent of the reforms was not to ‘spare the rod’ but that the laws which actually remained in the books should in fact be applied uniformly, and with all due severity. The bourgeoisie simply required a new and improved rod, as the old one had been broken upon the backsides of the working class over the centuries, and it no longer stung.

Efficiency in punishment

And so we read in the Hansard of 17 February 1813, in which the early attempt at legal reforms of 1810 were being debated. Sir Samuel Romilly stated: (note that in Hansard convention, the recorder describes the speaker in the third person as ‘he.’)

“It would be in the recollection of the House, that in 1810; he had proposed to bring in three Bills; one of which was to repeal the act of king William, which rendered it a capital offence to steal property to the amount of five shillings privately in a shop; another to repeal the act of queen Anne, which pronounced it a capital offence to steal to the value of 40s. in a dwelling-house; and the third, to repeal the act of George II, rendering it a capital offence to steal property to the same amount, from on board a vessel on a navigable river…. he alluded to that which related to stealing property of the value of 5s. in a dwelling-house: and the principle upon which he should propose to introduce this Bill was precisely the same as that which he had before stated, namely, the inexpediency of penal laws existing, which were not intended to be executed…. During these few years it appeared, that the number of individuals committed for this offence, amounted to 188, of whom 18 only had been convicted, and of these not one had been executed. This he trusted would be admitted as a pretty accurate criterion to shew that it was not intended to carry the law into effect against individuals who were found guilty under this statute. The consequence of the law not being executed, as was already stated, was, that where some punishment was deserved, no punishment was at all inflicted, and the offender escaped altogether with impunity. This was an evil which could not exist if the laws were less severe, and a certain but mild, although effective punishment, was substituted.” [ii]

by Sir Thomas Lawrence,painting,circa 1806-1810

The debate in the house moved on to the question of the punishment for high treason, which consisted of “that the criminal shall be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, that he shall be hanged by the neck, and being alive shall be cut down, that his entrails shall be taken out of his body, and, he living, the same shall be burnt before his eyes, that his head shall be cut off, his body be divided into four quarters, and head and quarters shall be disposed of at the pleasure of the king.” It was noted that though this was indeed the official punishment, it had only rarely been carried out to the letter in recent times, with the usual practice simply being that the victim was hung up by the neck until dead, and the corpse was decapitated, as were the Cato Street Conspirators. The law dictated one thing – tradition quite another. Such a brutal execution to the letter of the law was last applied in 1782, to a Scottish republican rebel. It led to a mob scene in which the victim’s ‘quarters’ were themselves hacked to bits by an enraged crowd, a shocking act of barbarism.

The drawing and quartering of François Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV of France, 1610.

The Solicitor General, rising to respond to the Honourable Member, stated, quite revealingly,

“…if the obligation of strictly interpreting and literally enforcing the provision of the criminal law were imposed on the judges, no one man would accept an office which would convert the assizes (courts) into shambles.” [iii]

Here we have the bourgeoisie fighting, not for any kind of justice except the justice of their particular class.

The accumulated legal dross of 700 years, and also its ancient barbarism stood in the way of the efficient and effective dispensation of bourgeois justice, which required a rational system which could be universally applied in all cases. Human sensibilities had long shrunk from the application of the grotesque penalties prescribed in the ‘Bloody Code.’ The bourgeoisie longed to rationalize the beheading of their class enemies, even as they feigned horror at the memory of the execution of King Louis of France. This basic schema has informed their political position on most every subject ever since.

In the Parliamentary debate of May 24, 1830 on the subject of the repeal of the death penalty for the crime of forgery, Peel, speaking against the repeal, declared that he “…had endeavoured first to simplify the law, with a view to its mitigation afterwards.” [iv]

Further, he gave an account of the relationship between his legal reforms and the resulting decline in executions which is revealing.

“He found that in the seven years previous to 1822, when he came into office, the number of executions, in England and Wales, was 731, while the number of executions since 1822—that is up to December, 1829—was 433, showing a considerable diminution. The number of executions in London and Middlesex in the former seven years, was 192; in the latter seven years, or during the period that he had been in office, it was 120, showing a diminution of seventy-two. He was afraid that this diminution could not be laid to the account of the diminution of capital offences, as they had been rather on the increase. Perhaps, indeed, the mitigation of the severity of the laws might have encouraged and facilitated prosecutions, and so more capital crimes had been prosecuted, but he did not believe that the diminution of executions could be accounted for by the diminution of capital offences.” [v]

Brougham pointed out the reluctance of the general public to aid English prosecutors, out of revulsion at capital punishment. “One great difficulty was, to induce juries, under the existing law, to convict for Forgery. But the grand difficulty was, to prevail on prosecutors and witnesses to come forward. Even if prosecutors were callous themselves, which was rarely the case, they were surrounded by persons who were not so, and who would dissuade them from prosecuting, lest, in the event of a conviction, the Judge should happen to lean towards severity.” [vi]

The Rate of Capital Accumulation and the Rate of Punishment

The bourgeois class leaned quite heavily ‘towards severity.’ But it was a severity of an altogether novel type.

Fortunately for posterity, and for scientific socialism, the English bourgeoisie became suddenly enamoured with statistics and measurement in the first decades of the 19th Century. It is in part to this new craze for statistical measurement that we owe the existence of documentary evidence for our thesis – that the foundation of the police was in fact, a novel institution of class rule, whose rise coincides with the ascendency of the English bourgeoisie to full enfranchisement and political power.

In 1815, Parliament passed An Act to procure Returns of Persons committed, tried, and convicted for Criminal Offenses and Misdemeanors. This Act required all prisons to submit annual surveys back to the Home Office. The first of these became available in 1818. It’s revealing that before this date, we don’t even know how many prisons there were in England, and neither did the Ministry, as they hadn’t a system to even count them!

The collective ‘Communicating with Prisoners’ has gathered a fascinating set of statistics documenting the ‘prevalence of punishment’ in 19th century Britain. The have measured the number of persons ‘absent in punishment’ in terms of number of persons so absent per 100,000 people, including those transported, imprisoned, and executed. They explain their methodology thus:

“Quantitatively analyzing the composition of punishment benefits from having an encompassing measure of persons absent in punishment. Persons in prison provides a direct, available measure of persons absent in that type of punishment. Executions convert to absence of persons by estimating that an execution creates personal absence for the person’s expected remaining life-years. Banishment (transportation) similarly converts to absence via the length of the sentence of banishment. Absence of persons can then be aggregated across imprisonment, execution, and banishment. The number of persons absent in punishment is larger and less volatile than the flow of persons (executed, banished, imprisoned) into positions of absence (dead, in exile, in prison).” [vii]

And so we can see using the collective’s data that the prevalence of punishment escalates dramatically just as the death penalty falls out of favour, and as British laws are rationalized. Transportation and incarceration rise dramatically, out of proportion to what one would expect if there had been simply a one to one exchange of the punishment of execution for transportation or imprisonment. If such were the case, transportation and incarceration would simply track execution proportionally. Instead, they skyrocket. Here we can see the results of the bourgeois policy of the 1820s and 30s to rationalize the law and the penal system to ensure more convictions, not fewer. The dramatic increase in the prevalence of punishment shows the bourgeoisie ‘flexing its new muscles’ against the rising working class below it – without a police force. This is what class warfare looks like.

Police in their modern form would not be widespread until the 1860s in England. And so we see that police are not some sort of a-historical social ‘requirement’ to prosecute crime, which was prosecuted extremely aggressively long before police were widespread in Britain. Quite the opposite in fact. As the police institution grows, the prevalence of punishment falls for 50 years until the outbreak of WWII. Why this is so we will explore in upcoming chapters.

Profits and Repression – mere coincidence, or coincident relation?

This tremendous rise in incarceration antedates the formation of the London Metropolitan Police, but it coincides directly with a dramatic increase in capital accumulation and the growth in inequality over the same period.

The rate of profit of British industry begins a dramatic rise at the beginning of the 19th century. This is directly attributable to the application of steam power to mechanized industry. But there is another factor at work which most economists do not examine – the enforcement of new relations of production – a political question. First the data:


At the same time, labour’s share of GDP begins to fall, even though real wages are rising during the same period.



Despite rising real wages, labour’s share of GDP fell during the same period, and the prevalence of punishment increased. During this period, mechanized production expanded dramatically in England, despite working class resistance.

Could the requirement for a new, more intensified capital accumulation by the capitalist ruling class, arising out of the availability of new techniques of production, also require as a general rule, intensified repression of the working class, by whatever means this could be implemented – to enforce those new techniques – police or no police? Could the requirement for the application of new, labour displacing technological innovations in the economy such as steam power, electrification of production or computerization / automation under capitalism also engender similar effects? Could the police institution constitute a kind of institutional buffer between the ruling class and the ruled, (which had prior to the development of the police been required to face each other directly) to both enforce the extraction of surplus value from the working class as a whole, while at times mitigating the effects of such extraction?

The comparison with US incarceration figures from the later 20th century into the 21st century is suggestive in this regard.

US Corporate Profits

To be clear, the coincidence of these two phenomena does NOT imply causation of one by the other. It would be absurd to claim, for example that mass incarceration is the cause of rising corporate profits, or that the steep rise in corporate profits are the cause of mass incarceration.

Rather both coincident tendencies point to something else. They are actually not causes but rather effects, which point to a third factor, which is more difficult to display as a single line on a graph – the class war waged by the ruling class on the working class, across multiple spheres. The class war is not the result of a mechanical process. It is above all a political struggle, and in the 19th century as today, it was waged by bourgeois politicians and industrial capitalists. The subjective factor – the political action of the bourgeoisie – was decisive. It remains so today.

This class warfare develops historically, acquiring different forms, based upon the development of the productive forces and the balance of class forces, the level of political development of the contending classes, on the specific cultures in which these forces play out, in each period and in each place. Straight line comparisons of conditions in 19th century England and late 21st century America require multiple qualifications. But a case can be made that similar phenomena are at work.

What we can say at this point is that in 1820s England, the emergent bourgeois class was able to generate a massive increase in its profits and also repress the working class – without a police force organized on a mass scale for the repression of the working class. But by late 20th century America, police forces had evolved into one of the primary means by which the working class was disciplined and repressed.

How do we explain the historical development of this phenomenon?

What we can say so far, definitively is this: police as a form of social organization, as a novel institution of class rule, arise historically. The police are not an a-historical phenomenon existing in all societies, above the historical process. Further, the role played by police forces in capitalist society has itself undergone a process of historical development. In 19th century England, the proliferation of police coincides with a 50 year reduction in the prevalence of punishment. Since police are charged with prosecuting crime, and because crime results in punishment, there must necessarily be some relationship between the spread of police forces, and the decline of punishment prevalence. We must therefore separate the fact of the existence of police from the fact of what they actually do, in a given historical and social context. Police roles have evolved, their effects in different historical periods vary, while the police as an institution remain. For example, the racist content of much of American policing today is less prevalent in other historical periods, and absent in many other locales. And yet today there is no shortage of commentators who are keen to tell us that the police constitute ‘a racist institution’ or are ‘founded upon racism.’ Historical materialist analysis refutes such claims as impressionistic and mostly counterfactual.

We have demonstrated that, in part, the social role played by police today was once played by very different people, and answerable to a different social class. Before the police, their ‘social role’ was assumed by various different groups, the yeoman, the night watch, and the army.

Likewise, we now observe that the effect which the police today have upon the working class, and upon the class struggle, was achieved in early 19th century England without the police. The question is how the police developed historically as an institution of class rule peculiar to modern capitalism, and now necessary to it, and of course, why they so developed.

We will explore the relationship between the prevalence of punishment, the class war, and the profitability of capitalist production further as we describe the evolution and development of the police institution in subsequent periods. Before that we need to describe additional measures the early English bourgeoisie was taking to deprive the working class of its traditional means of living. What use would police be without new crimes to prevent and detect?

Criminalizing the Poor

In his rationalization of British law, Peel devised new offences which his improved police would be able to prosecute. Such offenses could only be committed by the working class.

The Vagrancy Act of 1824 criminalized the very existence of the poor and unemployed, or rather the material basis of the existence that the working class had enjoyed prior to industrialism. It is worth quoting at length.

“Every person committing any of the offences herein-before mentioned, after having been convicted as an idle and disorderly person; every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects; every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself;every person willfully exposing to view, in any street, road, highway, or public place, any obscene print, picture, or other indecent exhibition; every person willfully openly, lewdly, and obscenely exposing his person in any street, road, or public highway, or in the view thereof, or in any place of public resort, with intent to insult any female; every person wandering abroad, and endeavouring by the exposure of wounds or deformities to obtain or gather alms; every person going about as a gatherer or collector of alms, or endeavouring to procure charitable contributions of any nature or kind, under any false or fraudulent pretence ; every person being found in or upon any dwelling house, warehouse, coach-house, stable, or outhouse, or in any enclosed yard, garden, or area, for any unlawful purpose; every suspected person or reputed thief, frequenting any river, canal, or navigable stream, dock, or basin, or any quay, wharf, or warehouse near or adjoining thereto, or any street, highway, or avenue leading thereto, or any place of public resort, or any avenue leading thereto, or any street, or any highway or any place adjacent to a street or highwy; with intent to commit an arrestable offence; and every person apprehended as an idle and disorderly person, and violently resisting any constable, or other peace officer so apprehending him or her, and being subsequently convicted of the offence for which he or she shall have been so apprehended; shall be deemed a rogue and vagabond…” [xi]

The law was a legal catch-all with which to ensnare and criminalize anyone from whom surplus value could not be extracted. Workers would be dragooned into the factories, or later into the workhouse.

This Act, as quoted above, remains in force of law in England and has been used for 180 years to oppress the poor, gays and lesbians, prostitutes, artists, actors and political protestors. Any person just “milling about” on the street without being able to “give a good account of himself” in the opinion of a police officer risked and still risks arrest as a criminal, or at the very least a body search and interrogation. It’s difficult for moderns, accustomed to being watched, accustomed to obeying authority, to comprehend how oppressive and offensive was this Act to early 19th century English sentiments. It was considered an outrage.  

In 1827 the Malicious Trespass Act created a new class of criminal in “trespassers.” Under English common law, trespass could not be punishable by imprisonment. The 1827 Act changed that. The Act was used to prosecute for damages caused by peasants who strayed onto enclosed lands and knocked down fences to permit their herds to pass through closes between common lands. [xii]

‘An Object of Real Terror’

Transportation to New South Wales and then to Van Diemen’s Land begins to rise exponentially with the return home of soldiers from the Napoleonic Wars. These were founded as penal colonies, instead of prisons for British convicts. This punishment separated workers from their friends and family forever in most cases. Prisoners were first warehoused in ‘the hulks’ rotting ships in harbors where conditions were horrific and unsanitary. Conditions on the transport ships were little better. Many died en route. Once in Australia, the sentenced became indentured servants, first of the government, and then of private landowners. The character of transportation as punishment changed markedly in 1822, with the Report on the Conditions of the Colony of New South Wales by John Thomas Bigge.

Before 1822, Transportees lived better than did the English working class in many instances. They could own property, land, and were free to work for a wage or else for themselves after their ‘government hours.’ Word of this got back to Great Britain, where Lord Bathurst instructed the civil servant Bigge in his commission.  Bathurst: ‘transportation to New South Wales is intended as a severe punishment, applied to various crimes; and as such must be rendered an object of real terror to all classes of the community’.

Bigge set about designing the architecture of such a terror. His report resulted in the sacking of the pervious Governor, Macquarie, whom the British judged to have ‘gone native.’ He was replaced by Brisbane, who implemented all of Bigge’s recommendations. From 1822 to 1834, when slavery was finally abolished in the British Empire, transportees were let out by the government to private farmers as indentured labour. They were no longer allowed to work for themselves. Harsh physical punishments such as flogging and solitary confinement were introduced. And in addition to this, a system of internal transportation was developed. Convicts who could not be pacified were re-transported to penal colonies even further afield, at Moreton Bay or Norfolk Island.

A ‘Salutary terror’

It was during this time of the repeal of the death penalty that some of the most offensive and degrading punishments were devised in English prisons. The traditional punishments were gruesome enough.

Women picking oakum in an English workhouse

One such was ‘picking oakum’ or ‘picking junk.’ The punishment arose in the British Navy, and it was also the work of the poor in seaside villages. Oakum consists of the broken-up fiber of old hemp ropes mixed with tar. ‘Picking oakum’ involved beating these old ropes with a wooden mallet, and then unravelling the twisted rope fibers, embedded in tar, with the bare fingers, and then with the fingernails. It was tedious, dirty work which resulted in bloody fingers, tendonitis, bursitis and repetitive strain injuries. The toll on mental health was also immense. The oakum was used as waterproofing in wooden ships, and as the world’s first naval and seaborne commercial empire, Britain needed a lot of waterproofing. Prison labour provided much of this material.

By the 1820s, oakum picking in prisons began to be supplanted by mechanized punishments, modelled on factory labour.

Primary among these was the tread-wheel. Prisoners were forced to drive a large fan, or rotate a drum, often to no useful purpose, though sometimes the tread-wheels became tread-mills, and prison labour was rented out to mill grain. The main purpose was to degrade and exhaust the prisoner. Many preferred to be flogged.

Sir Robert Peel was a keen supporter of both the tread-wheel and of corporal punishment. In the debate on the Gaol Laws Amendment Bill on Feb 19th, 1824, Peel declared that “I consider the treadmill as an admirable contrivance, and think that no system of labour could be devised so little liable to abuse.” On the subject of corporal punishment, Peel felt that it “produces a salutary terror” which deterred crime. [xiii]

Peel was yet done ‘deterring crime.’

[i] http://www.johnhearfield.com/History/Breadt.htm

[ii] UK Parliament. Debates. 17 February, 1813. In Hansard : https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/17/sir-samuel-romillys-criminal-law-bills

[iii] ibid

[iv] UK Parliament. Debates. 24 May, 1830. Forgeries Punishment Bill . In Hansard. https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1830/may/24/forgeries-punishment-bill#S2V0024P0_18300524_HOC_91

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Op. Cit. Brougham, speaking the same debate.

[vii] https://www.acrosswalls.org/section/gender-imprisonment/punishment-sex-ratio/punishment-trends/

[viii] Allen, Robert C. Capital Accumulation, Technological Change, and the Distribution of Income

during the British Industrial Revolution, Nuffield College New Road, Oxford OX1 1NF

Department of Economics Oxford University, 2005. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:ee5e13de-74db-44ce-adca-9f760e5fe266

[ix] Allen, Robert C. Capital Accumulation, Technological Change, and the Distribution of Income during the British Industrial Revolution, Nuffield College New Road, Oxford OX1 1NF

Department of Economics Oxford University, 2005. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:ee5e13de-74db-44ce-adca-9f760e5fe266

[x] Allen, Robert C. Capital Accumulation, Technological Change, and the Distribution of Income during the British Industrial Revolution, Nuffield College New Road, Oxford OX1 1NF

Department of Economics Oxford University, 2005. https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:ee5e13de-74db-44ce-adca-9f760e5fe266

[xi] http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?activeTextDocId=1029462

[xii] Cases in the King’s Bench, Looker vs. Halcomb, 1827.

[xiii]  The Opinions of Sir Robert Peel, Expressed in Parliament and in Public, page 287.

“Three socialists walk into a job interview….and other jokes they told

by Stephen James Kerr, 19th September 2020

In my first report on the subject of the attempt by three ‘socialists’ to hijack a capitalist political party – the Green Party of Canada – by intervening in its leadership race, I noted that these ‘socialists’ were really applying for a job, that of “policy wonks to the ruling class.”

I was roundly criticized for this, and other observations by those who are themselves waiting in the wings with their own job applications for lesser positions in the ‘independent’ capitalist state of the Green’s imagination. Unfortunately for them, their political idols were not done arguing for my case.

During the Green Party’s leadership debate on ‘Canada’s Place in the World’ the ‘socialist’ trio provided mountains of evidence that whatever ‘socialism’ they might profess is pasted on.

There they debated the appropriate ‘independent foreign policy positions’ for an aggressive imperialist capitalist state run by middle class idealists in conditions of encirclement by a much larger and even more aggressive imperialist, capitalist state whose institutions are collapsing. How would our middle class idealists cut a deal with capitalism which would enable their continued survival as middle class idealists?

If only they had been so clear. My task, gentle reader, is to clarify the muddy waters they stirred up so that you may see and avoid the sharp-toothed Canadian nationalists which are lurking just beneath the surface. Careful. They bite.

This was no debate. It was a job interview conducted over Zoom where every candidate – ‘socialists’ included, addressed themselves to the Canadian ruling class, with their impressive CVs clutched firmly to their breasts. Who would be the safest pair of hands to manage the ‘independent interests’ of the Canadian state, and thus of the capitalist ruling class whose state it is? Whose breast beat truest north, beat strongest, beat most free?

Our purpose here is not to name winners, but losers. Loser number one was the working class. To be fair, the working class was never notified, was not invited, didn’t participate, was never mentioned, not a single time in this debate featuring three ‘socialists.’ The independent class interests of workers are international in nature, and thus run directly contrary to the ‘independent interests of Canada.’

This was an exercise in political presto-changeo, on the part of the ‘socialists’ who conflated the interests of the Canadian state with those of the working class, a class without a country.

Bankrupt Canadian Nationalism

If the international working class had managed to get a word in, no doubt any one of the debaters would have rushed to smother it with a Canadian flag.

Andrew West

The political tone of the discussion was set by at the open by the leadership candidates on the political right. Ottawa lawyer Andrew West, and Annime Paul, a former government bureaucrat from Canada’s Ministry of Global Affairs. West: “The Green Party is in a position to show the world that we can take strong action on climate change. To do that, we need to get elected. Green Party must be a governing party, not an activist party. We need to care about the economy…” Correction – the capitalist economy, which he never mentions is the source of the climate change he claims to want to fix. No intervention seriously questioned this general line of political opportunism, in service to Canadian nationalism and Canadian capitalism. The Green Party is preparing itself to govern the Canadian capitalist state, in light of the ongoing collapse of the NDP.

The foreign policy debate was entirely structured around how to solve what has ever been the ‘big question’ for the Canadian capitalist ruling class. This question is a two-part question. For the big capitalists the question is always how to deal with the United States, the biggest export market for their capital. For this section of the ruling class, a dirty deal must be done which will pit American and Canadian workers against each other.

For the smaller capitalist operators, the dream has always been one of ‘independence.’ This assumes that the United States – the only country aside from Denmark and France with which we share a border – just wasn’t really there, sort of like Demark and France. [i] How to chart an ‘independent foreign policy’ is the pipe dream of the Canadian middle class, who see their own fortunes tied to such fantastic notions. They imagine Canada to be ‘oppressed’ by the United States. In reality, they resent their status as small-time operators. The historical record of their total failure in this enterprise never made it into the Green Party debate.

And so in the discussion of how a Green Party government would deal with either President Donald Trump or President Joe Biden, we are told by the non-binary ‘socialist’ Dr. Amita Kuttner: “There is a large difference between whether you have Donald Trump as leader or Joe Biden.” – a difference which they never explain… “We need to make sure we stop following their lead. We need to make sure we don’t continue to sponsor state sponsored violence or coups in other countries. We differentiate ourselves, or separate ourselves. Make sure we’re not economically tied. With Biden it’s going to be easier…”

This is the doctrine of Canadian left nationalism, frozen since the Waffle movement of the 1970s. It’s still inedible, no matter how much maple syrup they pour over it.

Cartoon about the The Waffle movement, a wing of the NDP,  in late 1960s/early 1970s that espoused nationalism and solidarity with Quebec’s sovereignty.

Who are ‘ourselves’? Who is the ‘we’ who is sponsoring coups in Venezuela? Which Canadians are behind the ‘state sponsored violence’ and which are not? Here Kuttner’s blind acceptance of Canadian nationalism renders her incapable of the most elementary socialist political conclusions.

The working class in Canada has nothing to do with, and no responsibility for, the sponsorship of coups in Venezuela. It is not responsible for Canadian imperialist foreign policy. This is the policy of the Canadian ruling class. Why doesn’t the ‘socialist’ Kuttner say so? To frame the question in nationalist terms is to equate the responsibility of workers and their ruling class, when workers have zero control over the policy of the Canadian state. And Kuttner wants us to imagine that somehow it will be different if only we vote for Kuttner, at the head of a capitalist party?

Further, let’s imagine what would happen if the Canadian ruling class decided to ‘differentiate itself’ and no be longer ‘economically tied’ to the United States, as Kuttner and others in the debate advocate. The economic relationship between Canada and the USA is the largest foreign trade relationship in the whole world. What socialist would want to destroy that economic relationship? Kuttner hasn’t even considered this position beyond the opportunistic utility of phrase mongering.

Dr Amita Kuttner

But let’s take Kuttner’s notions for a moment on their own terms. Where would the Canadian capitalist ruling class turn for an alternative trading partner, under Kuttner’s leadership? In their other pronouncements, Kutner, whose family is from Hong Kong, is all for confronting the second largest economy on earth, China. They also state: “We must be so clear on standing up to the expansionism and the imperialism that China is causing across the entire world right now.” Is this not also the policy of the United States, from whom ‘we’ also must ‘differentiate ourselves’? Here is an object lesson in how the pseudo-left lines itself up behind American imperialism.

And further, how is China ‘imperialist’? Is Kuttner even acquainted with Lenin’s definition of imperialism? “Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.” [ii] How much capital is China exporting? China is a net capital importer. It is the United States which is the world’s largest exporter of capital, and also the country with more than 1000 military bases in foreign countries. China has one. The largest exporter of capital to China is – the United States. And yet Kuttner wants to line up behind the United States (independently) to go after China? The mind reels.

As if attempting to provide more evidence for my argument, Kuttner continues: “I think we also need to stand up for everyone’s right to self-determination… Be ready to take on refugees from across China, but leave open all of our diplomatic channels so that we can even with the clarity of our stances, so we can work together on climate action” – so Kuttner stands ready to use the power of the Canadian imperialist capitalist state to break up China, presumably by supporting Tibetan and Uighur separatism, (though Kuttner doesn’t state this explicitly) create a massive Chinese refugee crisis, and also simultaneously ‘work together’ with China to stop climate change?

One wonders how a future Prime Minister Kutner would handle the US announcement of a massive new expansion of its navy fleet to confront China. Which contradictory ‘principle’ would they abide by? Steer an ‘independent course’ and not participate, or contribute Canadian warships? Kuttner’s appeal to human rights is the thinnest veil for Canadian imperialism. Perhaps before launching a crusade to liberate Tibet – independently of the USA of course – Kuttner might want to take a few deep breaths.

The biggest enemy confronting the Canadian working class is not China. It’s not an administration of either Donald Trump or Joe Biden. It’s not Russia, as Glen Murray avers. It is Canadian nationalism, and all of its manifestations. It is the Canadian ruling class. It is the role of socialists to mobilize workers against nationalism. These three wallow in it.

Meryem Haddad

Meryem Haddad, the Montreal immigration lawyer also frames her ‘socialism’ in exclusively nationalist and identity politics terms which would be amenable to Justin Trudeau. Witness her statements on a response to climate change: She declares that “the climate crisis is a continuation of colonial violence.”  Let’s unpack this statement. This type of moralizing against ‘settler colonialism’ has usurped any analysis of the role of capitalism in the Canadian discourse of the pseudo-left, framing contemporary problems in terms of racial conflict, between ‘white settlers’ and ‘First Nations’ not class conflict. We are asked to be morally appalled by ‘settler colonialism’ but not capitalism, by ‘socialists.’ Today’s workers are thus commanded to share an equal burden of guilt and moral responsibility for the very real crimes of colonial conquest along with capitalists and 19th century imperialists, the better to pave the way for moralizing middle class social climbers to ascend to positions of power – within the existing capitalist state. Never mind the fact that socialism is premised upon the conquest by the world working class of all of the accumulated capital and technique built up in all previous stages of historical development. By the low level of the debate, one imagines that neither Haddad, Kuttner or Lascaris have heard of this basic concept. They would rather workers feel guilty for those previous stages of development over which the working class had zero control. We are supposed to deeply regret the previous stages of development, wishing they had never occurred, never mind the fact that these provided the only material foundation upon which the working class could possibly build socialism! And of course there is the idealist longing on the part of many Greens for a return to pre-industrial conditions of life, which they mystify, absent all understanding of the extremely unequal social relationships which such relations of production must necessarily engender.

And so Haddad declares that “The people at the forefront of climate change are not the ones responsible for climate change.” And she’s right. But she only refers to indigenous peoples while implying that all ‘Canadians’ are culpable. Working people feature exactly nowhere in her statements.

This ‘socialist’ doesn’t mention the responsibility of corporate polluters, who are actually responsible for the majority of GHG emissions originating in Canada. 8% of emissions come from ‘leaks’ from the oil and gas industry, which is more than all the emissions from heating and powering the homes of the Canadian working class, which account only for 6%. 14.5% of emissions come from mining and oil and gas exploration. [iii] But she lumps workers and capitalists together – under the Canadian flag, when she declares next that “It’s countries like ours who are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses who are responsible. If we don’t act on climate change, there is going to be a sea of climate refugees and blood on our hands. Canada must take responsibility for its role in this crisis. We have the wealth, we have the technology and we have the means of production to phase out fossil fuels.”

Who exactly has ‘the means of production’? A curious choice of words for a ‘socialist’ who never once mentions the working class or its interests. Who exactly ‘has the wealth’? She doesn’t say. A curious omission for a ‘socialist’ in a country where 1% of the population owns 25 % of the total wealth, and the bottom 40% have only 1.5%. [iv] Canadian nationalism obscures these realities.

Uncritical Idealism vs Historical Materialism

Dimitri Lascaris is widely hailed as the most ‘socialist’ of all candidates for the GPC leadership. But his ‘socialism’ is framed by idealistic appeals to concepts such as ‘the rule of law’ – laws made by and for the ruling class. He is a very successful lawyer. The law pays his bills. But he errs when he imagines that lawyers can bring about ‘socialism’ from comfortable leather seats in national parliaments.

Dimitri Lascaris

Many of Lascaris’ stated policy goals are developments socialists would warmly welcome.

Lascaris: “I think that our foreign policy is a combination of extraordinary and frankly disgracefully deference to US government foreign policy, but also it is heavily influenced by the extractive sector…. We aren’t going to deal with the climate emergency without confronting the fact that the capitalist system is at the core of this crisis. And that means that we’re going to have to deal with corporate power, and with the billionaire class, we’re going to have to break up monopolistic organizations, we are going to have to put serious constraints on corporate power, and ensure that our regulators are independent and sufficiently resourced to hold them accountable, and we’re going to have to reform our legal system so that ultimately the Canadian government is not pursuing foreign policy which caters to the needs of big business while sacrificing the people and the planet.”

Nice speech. But how possible are such reforms as he imagines, under a capitalist system in serious crisis? In my previous article, I pointed out how capitalism in its current stage of development requires a higher rate of exploitation of labour power, not the lower one he promises, so we will not explore that question here. But what social force could bring Lascaris’ dreams into being? Lascaris never mentions the working class. But our collective agency is the ONLY force which could possibly bring about the changes he promises. And further, we could only do so on an internationalist basis.

Lascaris’ idealism is bound in national fetters. And so he gives the Canadian ruling class the quarter they require to maintain themselves. Instead of overthrowing capitalism – necessary if we’re to solve the climate crisis – he’d ‘deal with corporate power.’ How exactly? He’d only deal with ‘the billionaire class’ and not the multi-millionaire class? That would leave the capitalist ruling class – and thus the exploitation of the working class and the natural world completely untouched and in place, despite any ‘serious constraints on corporate power’ that one might imagine. Such constraints as he promises would inevitably be negotiated away as a blood sacrifice in the service of some parliamentary compromise or other.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do a thought experiment to consider what would be the likely results if Lascaris were to lead the Green Party, and further, if he were to come even close to power. We merely have to look to the failed Corbyn experiment in the UK.

Corbyn was elected leader of the Opposition by fostering illusions in social reform, but without the participation of the working class.  His ‘progressivism’ was always wrapped in the Union Jack, and organized around identity politics, and appeals to ‘decency’ across the class divide, and across the aisle of the House of Commons. These fell on predictably deaf ears. Yet the Stalinists at the Morning Star and the various pseudo-left liberal tendencies were agog. Now, they have a fist full of nothing, just as socialists predicted.

Corbyn’s politically bankrupt strategy could not advance a single one of its professed aims, and its spectacular defeat – via an internal party coup d’etat justified by completely fraudulent accusations of anti-semitism, pushed the entire spectrum of British politics, not to the left, but to the hard right.  Much can be made of Corbyn’s personal fecklessness and cowardice. But the root of the failure of Corbynism lies in its bankrupt, nationalist and reformist perspective – the same one shared by the Green Party’s ‘socialist’ fraction.

If one were in any doubt that a similar fate would befall Dimitri Lascaris, should he be elected leader, one only had to follow the heated discussion around the GPC’s party of sanctions on Israel, of which Lascaris is the author. He noted: “When Elizabeth May came back from the West Bank in 2018, she said that what Israel is doing is much worse than the Apartheid in South Africa. This is not a political judgement. Apartheid has a specific definition in international law. This is a legal judgement which must be based on international law. We are the only party today that calls for economic sanctions on Israel.”

This statement was followed by vehement denials from the right wing candidates that such was even the adopted policy, even though it in fact IS the policy, which 91% of GPC members supported. One is reminded of all of the fine sounding policies of the Labour Party which went up in flames under Corbyn. The failure of Lascaris’ policies can be predicted by the political idealism with which he describes them, and the nationalism which frames them. He declares that Israeli apartheid is ‘not political’ but rather a technical definition, based on law. As if the law were apolitical! As if the state and the law ‘stood above society.’ As if the United Nations, as if the International Criminal Court – to which he appeals, and which specializes in the criminal prosecution of the enemies of western states, were not the political tools of imperialism.

Socialists know that the state and the laws, and yes international laws are merely tools for the rule of one class by another. We are happy to use those laws to advance the cause of socialism, but with open eyes, and not based on what are ultimately moral appeals to the ruling class to ‘obey the law.’ The ‘rule of law’ has a class character, and has developed historically. What Lascaris fails to realize is that the rule of law is now a barrier to the further accumulation of capital for a growing section of the ruling class, and this is why it is being abandoned. Yet Lascaris wants to run a capitalist party?

The Squad – to which Lascaris appeals as political allies, cannot guarantee the rule of law. The only force capable of defending the rule of law is the organized international working class. And there is another aspect which is critical to the struggle for socialism. Laws are neither a political or moral absolute. One merely needs to point out how many such laws have had to be broken when injustice wore the mantle of the law. And that is where the struggle against Israeli apartheid is being waged – in the Occupied Territories by Palestinian resisters. Israeli Apartheid is perfectly legal – in Israel, and also in the United States, and pretty much every other capitalist state which accepts it. The question is therefore NOT one of legal technicalities, but of political power. It is Israel’s political power and its military violence which enforces its unjust laws. A countervailing power must be applied. This is exactly the opposite of what Lascaris avers. Power makes laws. Laws do not make power. Lawyers are merely power’s uppity stenographers.

Just once during the debate, Lascaris offered a faint hope that perhaps he might appeal to the working class. Such hopes were dashed immediately. After listing the many war crimes of Joe Biden and the Obama administration, and bemoaning the Trump administrations attack on the International Criminal Court, he states “At the same we have to realize that we have allies in the United States. People who want to see a humane foreign policy. People like Bernie Sanders, people like Alexandra Ocassio Cortez,  people like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib,  Senator Merkely, and we have to reach out to them and build alliances and make clear that the American people are not our enemies. The problem here is the US Government, which oppresses people in the United States just as it does in developing countries.” Yes it does. But what kind of ‘allies’ can Lascaris imagine, in the fight against US imperialism? Only the political enablers of Joe Biden. Not the working class. Further, he calls for an “alliance of non-belligerent countries.” His notions would contain the working class inside obsolete national borders.

Working Class Political Independence

After my initial critique, some of the easily impressed drew the erroneous inference that I was advocating that socialists should abstain from electoral campaigns, and this was a ‘Left Wing Communism / Infantile Disorder’ type affliction. Nothing could be further from the truth.  

Socialists welcome electoral political contests, but not for the reasons and not using the means and methods deployed by Kuttner, Haddad and Lascaris. Where these three use such a campaign to promote their CVs as policy wonks to the ruling class, socialists use electoral campaigns to build the class consciousness of the international working class.

A socialist election campaign would therefore look and sound completely different from the campaign of these three middle class radicals. Firstly, it would not be focused on a parlour coup inside a capitalist political party. Following on from that, it would be founded on a Marxist historical materialist analysis which raised the consciousness of the international working class of its own aims. It would be politically independent from all factions of the ruling class. One could refer to the campaign of Joseph Kishore and Norissa Santa Cruz in the United States for an example. It’s a campaign based upon socialist principles.

Unlike the campaigns of Lascaris, Haddad and Kuttner, a socialist campaign would not foster illusions in the reform of capitalist social relations – a lower rate of exploitation, a ‘nicer’ capitalism. All such illusions are just that, illusions. A socialist campaign might use very similar demands to those Lascaris suggests – cut military spending by 50% immediately – fund climate change mitigation! Stop Canadian interference in the Lima Group! for example. But it would use such demands not to foster illusions in the working class that they could be achieved under capitalism, by a reformist government, but precisely in the opposite way – to educate the workers that they can never be achieved on such a basis.
(Further reading: A. Badayev. The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma)

Lascaris, Haddad and Kuttner need to confront the socialist tradition, and also the history of political bankruptcy in which they have chosen to stand. So far, no sign of that. In the meantime, socialists will continue to speak the uncomfortable truth.

[i] Canada shares a border with only three countries, the United States, Denmark via Canada’s border with Greenland, and France, which still owns the Islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Canada does not share a border with Russia, which is separated from Canada in the Arctic via international waters.

[ii] https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/imp-hsc/ch07.htm

[iii] http://prairieclimatecentre.ca/2018/03/where-do-canadas-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from/

[iv] https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2020/06/30/ineq-j30.html

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.

The plot to take over the Green Party and other delusions of the Canadian middle class

By Stephen James Kerr , 5th September 2020

The campaign by a group of so-called ‘eco-socialists’ to take over the Green Party of Canada by nominating allegedly ‘socialist’ candidates to the party’s leadership race is a bankrupt exercise in middle class political delusion.

Three candidates are running for the leadership as ‘socialists’: Toronto class-action lawyer Dimitri Lascaris, Montreal law graduate Meryem Haddad and Dr. Amita Kuttner, an accomplished astrophysicist.

The campaign has captured the limited imaginations of those who accept that merely identifying oneself as a ‘socialist’ makes one a socialist. The affair poses in stark terms the political disorientation and bankrupt perspective of Canada’s pseudo-left.

The words ‘working class’ ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ appear nowhere in Dr. Kuttner’s policy statement. Neither do they appear in the brief policy statement of Mereyem Haddad. Lascaris, refers to capitalism a couple of times in his more extensive platform papers. The term ‘class struggle’ appears exactly nowhere. In his ‘socialist’ economic platform, the word socialism is marked by its absence.

What does appear is a great deal of left-sounding rhetoric, couched in policy sound bites. But is it socialism? Lascaris’ ‘worker’s rights’ platform is revealing in that regard. Witness the following, frankly astonishing passage:

“We have come a long way from the wage slavery and subjection to employer whim of the early Industrial Revolution.  Today, we expect workers to have a shared relationship with management.  It is the combination of management and workers that will determine the success and sustainability of Canadian firms.”

Have we in fact come a ‘long way from wage slavery’? Today’s wage slaves slaving away for the super-profits of Amazon, Apple and many other firms would beg to differ! No, it’s no longer the wage slavery of the ‘early industrial revolution’ but rather the wage slavery of the twenty first century. What exactly is a ‘shared relationship’ between workers and management? It means nothing. Lascaris the ‘socialist’ is here openly advocating not socialism – a new society where the working class is the ruling class – but rather its opposite – a cease fire in the class struggle, for “the success and sustainability of Canadian firms.” How can a ‘socialist’ advocate a cross-class alliance between workers and management to boost capitalist profits and not be laughed off the stage? Lascaris’ effrontery is the measure of the political degeneration of the Canadian middle class. He can get away with it because his audience knows nothing better.

What is the Green Party of Canada?

What is the Green Party of Canada? What is its history? To understand the folly of the ‘eco-socialist’ coup attempt, a short history lesson is required.

The Green Party has never, since its founding in 1983, been a working-class political party. It was founded by a group of middle class intellectuals and business people who were either complete strangers to the socialist tradition, or in reaction against it. These elements, who still dominate the Green Party’s ideology, are more influenced by the idealist utopianism of E.F Schumacher than the historical materialism of Karl Marx. Former Green Party Elizabeth May first ran for the ‘Small Party’ inspired by Schumacher, who explicitly rejected Marxist economic thought in favour of a religious formulation based on his concept of an idealized ‘human nature’ which determined the forms of economic organization which should prevail. He looked backwards to small scale industry and craft production, essentially a reaction against industrialism and all of its socially progressive implications.

Schumacher’s concept of ‘Small is Beautiful’ is central to Green Party ideology, which although it nods to such vague terms as ‘social justice’ undertakes no serious critique of capitalism. It embraces capitalism instead.

The Green Party platform declares that “Canada needs to support entrepreneurs” and small business who are “hampered by red tape.” They call for a new “Green venture capital fund” and to “hold taxation at no more than 9 percent.” What socialist could say no?

At its most absurd, green ideology imagines small-scale economic ‘alternatives’ to industrial capitalism based on an idyll where the class struggle has been papered over. The history of the Green Party on its official page hints at the ideological roots of this fantasy:

“The modern green movement started in Canada and around the world in the 1960s when the counter-culture movement launched the first mass rejection of consumer culture. Five decades later, the 60s values of peace, love and understanding have become the founding Green Party values of non-violence, social justice and ecological thinking. While the end of the 60s saw the decline of many grassroots movements, their life-affirming values didn’t go away. In the ’70s, the green movement re-emerged in isolated, small-scale enterprises such as health food stores, women’s and environmental groups, renewable energy programs and organic farms.”  

Indeed, the 1960s saw a mass uprising by the working class all over the world. American workers rose up against the Vietnam War and against segregation. France, Portugal and other countries came close to socialist revolution, only to be betrayed by the nationalist policies of the Communist Parties and trade union bureaucracies. A brief overview of this history is beyond the scope of this article.

The defeat of these mass working class movements caused many in the middle class to reject socialist thought, which they falsely conflated with Stalinism and its betrayals. From this they drew reactionary political conclusions. In their eyes, the working class was not capable of changing society, and so they adopted a political position combining extreme cynicism and pessimism with various shades of idealism. Their cynicism they directed at workers. Their idealism they projected onto capital.

For the agency of the working class, they substituted various other agencies, of the oppressed, of various identity groups, of third world liberation movements. These could liberate themselves, for themselves, without the need for a socialist revolution, under capitalism. And some decided that it wasn’t even capitalism that was the problem with society at all, but rather decided to reject the industrial revolution itself. A simpler capitalism was what they sought. Not an end to exploitation, but exploitation at a lower rate. Not worker control of industry, but ‘partnerships’ between labour and management, leaving exploitation, and their source of income, safely intact. Not an end to injustice, but only as much injustice as they could stomach on a full stomach.

The Green Party arose precisely out of this rejection of socialist struggle, in favour of a retreat into personal issues, religiosity, hippie communes, and small business etc. Rather than struggle to overthrow capitalist social relations, the ‘counterculture’ and the green movement adapted themselves to those relations.

This combination of uncritical idealism and political opportunism is the source of every moralizing campaign to ‘Buy Local’ or ‘Shop Organic’ and has a definite class character.

Caught between the capitalists and the industrial working class, two classes who are at war with one another, the middle class imagines there is some alternative to class conflict, between capitalism and revolutionary socialism, one that will allow them to hold fast to their illusions in peace and quiet, and most importantly – maintain their privileged lifestyle. But it’s socialism, and Marxism which the Green Party and green ideology rejects most vehemently. It wants a small-scale capitalism where it can provide wise ‘policy solutions’ to the ruling class, and thus ascend to positions of influence within the bureaucracy and capitalist corporations. This is the limit of its ambitions. And they dare call it socialism!

Elizabeth May has stated many times that the Greens are ‘not a left-wing party.’ She is correct. It’s an establishment, capitalist political party based on its ideology and the class composition of its membership.

And yet somehow, a group of self-styled ‘eco-socialists’ – with zero political or organizational connection to the working class – believe that their palace coup within a capitalist political party, founded upon the rejection of socialism, can achieve ‘socialism’? One doesn’t know where to begin.

The true role of “The Justice Greens

The coup plotters call themselves ‘The Justice Greens’ modelled after a similar caucus – the ‘Justice Democrats’ within the US Democratic Party, which is the world’s oldest capitalist political party. This group includes Alexandra Ocassio Cortez, (The political role of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ) who passes herself off as a socialist with some success, largely because both the media and the public have been led to believe that ‘socialism’ means merely the adoption of a few progressive, social reforms by otherwise capitalist governments. Never mind the fact that such reforms as she promises are themselves a hopeless fraud.

The net effect of this political card trick is to keep the working class dragooned behind a capitalist political party, lured by empty promises that cannot possibly be kept. This was the effect of the totally fraudulent Bernie Sanders phenomenon, which only served to shepherd workers behind Biden and Hillary Clinton, both avowed enemies of socialism.

And indeed, the role of ‘policy wonks to the ruling class’ seems to be exactly the job for which the Justice Greens are applying – they come to manage workers, not to lead them.

In an interview in The Canada Files , Justice Green leader John Connor Kelly stated that “their long term objective of bringing in an eco-socialist leader is to create sustainable policies and provide ecological justice for communities of colour, Indigenous and low-income communities.” Kelly also noted that “All these issues have the same root cause which is the economic system that we live in.” Indeed they do. Yet an analysis of that economic system – capitalism – in its present development exposes the delusional notion that a Green Party or any other capitalist party could enact such reforms as the Justice Greens imagine.

The capitalist system is based on the exploitation of wage labour by capital. As the only thing the worker has to sell in the market is his labour power, he sells this power as a commodity to the capitalist. Labour power is a commodity with a special character. In its consumption by the capitalist, new value is created, surplus value, which the capitalist appropriates as profits. Thus the labour of the working class is the source of all economic value, and of all capitalist profits. The special position of the working class in capitalist production is also the source of its immense social power, when it comes into conscious political activity. This is why socialists address themselves to the working class – because theirs is the only social agency on the planet powerful enough to bring about socialism, by collective action. Yet the Green ‘socialists’ nowhere address themselves to the working class, nor do the terms ‘working class’ or even ‘class’ appear in their campaign literature! They imagine ‘socialism’ to be their vague policy ideas, which they offer meekly to the capitalist ruling class as friendly advice.  

Nowhere do they mention the immense crisis of capitalism under way at present. Nowhere do they address the crisis faced by the working class in the face of the ruling class response to the COVID19 pandemic – the back to work campaign and the campaign to force working class children into unsafe schools. Nowhere do they denounce imperialist war for what it is – the bloody child of nationalism and capitalism. Nowhere can one find an analysis or perspective document of any seriousness, only vague policy sound bites, floating above the maelstrom of current events as if in a dream.

Nowhere do the Green ‘socialists’ ask ‘Where will tomorrow’s capitalist profits come from?’ when they conjure their vague, imaginary reformist fantasies of happy life in some indefinite future powered by small business.

The financialization of the economy on central bank credit has grave implications for the working class under capitalism. Today’s sky-high stock valuations are a claim on the labour power of future generations of workers. Today’s trillions of dollars of speculative stock bets will be extracted from the working class by the hyper-exploitation of their labour, decades into the future. This is one reason why the bets are being waged in the first place. The only way these can be paid is by increasing the level of capitalist exploitation. If capital will be busy extracting super-profits from workers into the indefinite future to pay for today’s speculative binge, how will capital simultaneously create the happy valley imagined by the Green ‘socialists’? They haven’t imagined the question, let alone the answer.

We have reached a point where working people are now having to defend social and economic gains won 100 years previously. Global capitalism is not interested in the ‘progressive reforms’ touted by the Green ‘socialists.’ It is busy arming right wing militias and far right political parties in the USA, in Germany, in Mexico, Chile, in Spain and Greece, in the Philippines, Brazil, Ukraine, Hungary, Sweden etc. The ruling class is turning not towards the next Bernie Sanders, but towards the next Augusto Pinochet. Who exactly do the Green policy wonks to the ruling class hope to advise?

This begs the question of the true political role of this group. The ‘Justice Greens’ are not an isolated phenomenon. They replicate, belatedly, a pattern of middle class political development that has been already played out, in Greece with the SYRIZA government, in Spain with PODEMOS, and in the UK during the Jeremy Corbyn experiment. The result each time has been a record of complete betrayal of all of their fine sounding promises. SYRIZA came to power based on promises to reject the austerity demanded by the EU. They spent their time in power implementing an even more brutal austerity regime than the one they were elected to reject. The result was mass demoralization and the growth of fascist influence in Greece. PODEMOS was launched on the back of the 2011 mass demonstrations, and is now a partner in the coalition government of Spain with the PSOE. It has rejected all of its early ideas, and now poses as a ‘safe pair of hands’ to manage Spanish capitalism, and repress Catalan nationalism. The political retreat of PODEMOS has coincided with the advance of the openly fascist VOX party. Likewise in Britain, the refusal of Corbyn to fight for his espoused principles in the face of attacks from the right led directly to the election of the most right wing government in British history under Boris Johnson, thanks to the confusion and demoralization engendered by his political capitulation.

The true role of the Green Party, and of the Justice Greens, whether they know it or not, is the containment of working-class political aspirations behind the façade of a capitalist political party, deferring those into the indefinite future, and the opening up of a political space, not to the left, but to the right, using the lever of empty promises and the disillusionment these ultimately create once betrayed.

The Greens cannot seriously imagine that the capitalist ruling class will take them or their reform ideas seriously.

The danger is that the working class will.  

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 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

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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.

Rent strike poster website launched in build up to May Day global rent strike.

A website entitled “Global Rent Strike Posters” has been created dedicated to building working class solidarity across the world to demand a global end to rent payments, and the socialization of all rental housing stock. It provides posters and links from rent strikes in New Zealand (Aotearoa), Australia, United States (Boston, Columbus, North Carolina), Canada (Toronto, Montreal). The website has been launched in the build up to the May 1st (May Day) call out for a global rent strike.

Below is the text from home page of the website.
Visit www. globalrentstrikeposters to see all the posters.

In the space of a single month, the COVID19 pandemic has exposed the complete failure of global capitalism to provide basic human needs, including healthcare, employment, and housing.

The ruling class of the world, the capitalists, rapidly coordinated a series of responses to the pandemic, with the object of securing the capitalist system – not providing for basic human needs.

We can see this global coordination in the approach to rental housing –  state funds are being directed towards corporate landlords, not to tenants, in many of the advanced capitalist countries such as Canada, the USA and Australia.

If the interests of landlords and capitalists are being coordinated on a global scale, then the only way tenants can successfully fight back – even locally – is by coordinating our efforts globally. Only the international working class has the power.

But before we can coordinate, we have to know each other. This is why the Global Rent Strike Poster website to sharing Rent Strike posters and art from around the world was created. It is so that working people who are engaging in what can seem to be very localized struggles, in a single building, with a single landlord, or in a single neighbourhood, can know that they are not alone, and can have the strength to fight back not as individuals, but as a social class, with its own independent social interests.

Where possible, we have provided a link to the organization which created the poster or leaflet, or else the rent strike group in that local area.

You can send rent strike posters to solidarity@globalrentstrikeposters.com

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.