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Origins of our class

What were our origins as a working class? The British working class was the first in the world to emerge out of the land, the first to become an overwhelming majority. Feudal obligations and relationships on the land had already broken down and been rejected by the peasants of Britain by the end of the Black Death in the fifteenth century (far earlier than elsewhere in the world) to be replaced by wage labour and capitalist relationships.

As they were first, they had no other experience to rely on or copy, so they had to work things out for themselves, devising their own philosophy of defence against the ravages of early capitalism to prevent the capitalist parasite devouring the working class host.

Workers’ organisations, trade unions, began locally, in parish, village, mine, and town, enjoying strong commitment and loyalty. They were not imposed from outside but forged by the people themselves and grew organically. Not created by external political organisations or religious groups, they were usually based on a common trade or a skill, which brought the strength and identity of a common culture. Because capitalism feared trade unions, it tried to destroy them, notably with the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, and the unions were often born in conspiracy, against the law.

British workers in the 18th and 19th centuries proved they could be self-reliant, able to think, speak and act for themselves, capable of changing their conditions and improving their dignity. Instead of being merely passive or submissive they combined against the exploitation and oppression of employers and their governments.

When they had to grow nationally to better combat the opposing class, there was an absolute suspicion of those who did not work at the trade, best illustrated by the leading craft union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE), whose rules insisted that workers would control and run the union. Later, when Lenin came to fashion the democratic centralism of the Bolshevik party, he studied the ASE’s structure.

Eventually the most retrograde thing that the trade unions did was to form the Labour Party in 1900, which represented a turning away from their origins, a denial that working people would be the deciding force.

Today with capitalism in absolute decline, with misery and exploitation again threatening to devour us, our class needs to revive itself by rebuilding our unions around skill and trade, in workplace and in regions; exercising control over structures through the vigilance of those at work. We will learn, incidentally, that we not only have the ability to defend to better effect but also have the capacity to fashion our own society and power, free of capitalists or politicians: the dictatorship of the proletariat. The host will eject the parasite.