“For the first time in the history of the labour movement the struggle is being so conducted that its three sides, the theoretical, the political, and the practical-economic (opposition to the capitalists), form one harmonious and well-planned entity”. Frederick Engels, 1874
The subordinate class — subordinate to the ruling class economically, politically, and in its ideas — that does not know its own history can never reap the full benefit of that history. It cannot learn the lessons and put them to use in the future.
The working class faces great difficulties in preserving the memory of its own past. The memory of the ruling class exists in its institutions of rule, in its schools and colleges, in textbooks and in fine-wrought ideologies. The social and historical memory of the working class exists in its organisations.
Its trade unions and reformist socialist organisations are organisation of short and patchy memory; its revolutionary organisations are the custodians of its fullest memory.
In times of downturn or defeat in the class struggle, things known and understood by previous working-class generations are pushed into the background, subjected to steady effacement and the acid rain of oblivion by the representatives of the ruling class in newspapers, TV, radio, and in one-sided history books. Myths or outright lies take their place.
This is especially so in a period like our own of technological revolution in the economy, the destruction of old industries and the coming into being of new ones, following serious defeats in the class war of the working class and the bourgeoisie.
In the mid-1970s a couple of leaders of the biggest trade unions in Britain were widely believed to have more power than Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Today a boss-class stooge like Gordon Brown can treat the unions with contempt.
It will not always be like that! The working class goes down in defeat - but then it rises again.
Much that was once commonplace is now forgotten in the working class. Even the techniques of organising strikes will have to be re-learned in Britain in the period ahead, when the capitalist economic crisis now unfolding may well upset the equilibrium of working-class defeat with the Thatcher Tories established and Thatcher’s Brown-Blair political offspring have maintained.
Much of working-class history is the history of periods of defeat like the one we are passing through. But our history is also the history of great political and industrial battles, many of which we won.
In times of quietness, the proof that there will be other times in which the working class will fight and maybe this time win is to be found in the battles of the past. No matter what changes are brought about in the working class by technological revolutions, its fundamental relationship with the bourgeoisie remains constant - exploitation by those who control the economy.
In this, the first of a number of pamphlet issues on labour’s great battles in the past, Workers’ Liberty covers the two great 1919 strikes, in Belfast and Glasgow, and the 1913 lockout/ strike in Dublin, the “Labour War” that dragged on for over six months.
We also include Karl Kautsky’s article on the relation between the organisation of the working class in trade unions and working-class political action.