The English working class is one of the enigmas of modern history. Its development as a class is divided into two great phases, and there appears at first sight to be hardly any connection between them.
It was born in conditions of the utmost violence, harshly estranged from all traditional and tolerable conditions of existence and thrown into the alien, inchoate world of the first industrial revolution. Formed in this alienation by the blind energies of the new capitalist order, its sufferings were made more hopeless by the severest political and ideological persecution. From the outset it inspired fear by its very existence. In the time of general fear produced by the French Revolution, such dread and hostility became chronic, affecting the old ruling class and the new industrial bourgeoisie alike, and creating a climate of total repression. What was possible but revolt, in the face of this? Humanity, pulverized and recast in this grim mould, had to rebel in order to live, to assert itself as more than a mere object of history, as more than an economic instrument. The early history of the English working class is therefore a history of revolt, covering more than half a century, from the period of the French Revolution to the climax of Chartism in the 1840’s.
And yet, what became of this revolt? The great English working class, this titanic social force which seemed to be unchained by the rapid development of English capitalism in the first half of the century, did not finally emerge to dominate and remake English society. It could not break the mould and fashion another. Instead, after the 1840’s it quickly turned into an apparently docile class. It embraced one species of moderate reformism after another, became a consciously subordinate part of bourgeois society, and has remained wedded to the narrowest and greyest of bourgeois ideologies in its principal movements.
Why did this happen? It is important for us to try and understand why, for many reasons. But above all, because the difficulties confronting any socialist revolution in Britain today are as much the long-term product of this astonishing transformation as of any development in the ruling class or any evolution in the structure and techniques of capitalism.
The problem of the English working class cannot be separated from that of the growth of English bourgeois society as a whole—that is, it is one part of a wider enigma, and is normally obscured like everything else by those liberal mystifications the English have erected in honour of their past. We have a long way to go in penetrating this general obscurity. Nevertheless, one vital fact surely emerges and imposes itself upon any serious consideration of the origins of the English working class.
Given the time and circumstances of its birth, this class was fated to repeat, in certain respects, the historical experience of the English bourgeoisie itself.
The revolutionary period of the English bourgeoisie occurred early in the general evolution of capitalism, earlier than that of any equivalent class in a major country. Those urban and rural middle classes who made the Revolution of 1640 were pioneers of bourgeois development, advancing blindly into a new world. Such blindness was the price of being in the van. Although the English Revolution attempted like other revolutions to escape from the general blindness and chance of historical evolution in a conscious remaking of society, the attempt was inevitably crippled by the lack of the very materials for an adequate consciousness of this sort. The final destruction of English feudalism in the period 1640–60 took place long before the full flowering of bourgeois ideology. Initiating the cycle of bourgeois expansion in this way, the English middle classes could not hope to benefit from a new conception of the world that was itself produced in the course of the cycle and reached maturity at a later date. Hence, although they contributed powerfully to the Enlightenment their practical struggles were necessarily conducted in terms of a pre-Enlightenment philosophy, a religious world-view unequal to what was at stake, English Puritanism. This fact explains a large part of those aspects of the Revolution which appear to us as a failure: its profound empiricism, the patchwork of compromise and makeshift it ended in, and the resultant organic coalescence with the English ancien régime.