A Dual Education
My introduction to wage slavery was in 1933—the year I started work as an apprentice in the engineering trade.
In those days it was custom and practice to put apprentices to work with the best craftsmen in the shop. It was my good fortune to work with old George, who was a first class craftsman, a militant shop steward and a thorough going Marxist. What set him apart from the many other trade union activists employed in the firm was his awareness that the problems which unions attempted to deal with were political both in origin and solution.
There was no gap between George’s work as a top craftsman and his activity as a militant and a Marxist. On the contrary, each was the logical outcome of the other. His grandfather, who was a founder member of the union, had been at Peterloo and on first name terms with Engels. George had grown up in engineering—the craft, the pride and the struggles. On the bench he produced the best in the trade. He was in his element in the battle/ He knew about the class struggle, not as an abstract theory, but as an important and vital part of his life. He had grown up with it, and fought it daily in the workshop. From George I received a dual education in Marxism and engineering. He couldn’t speak about anyone or anything without putting them in their context in the capitalist system.
Each dinner time (we had one hour in those days) twenty or thirty workers of all ages would gather round our bench, sit on pieces of machinery, boxes and even the floor. They came to hear George spread the theories of Marx. Right from the beginning, George would take a form grip on that small audience, and with clarity and emotion expound the Marxist position on what was happening in the political arena. The audience daily came back for more.
I will never forget when the management announced, on the works’ white board, that, in response to certain disruptive elements in the main machine shop, they had invited a prominent economist (from Oxford no less) to represent the engineering employer in a debate with this Marxist. That is, of course, provided the Marxist could hold his own in debate with this most erudite capitalist theoretician.
The challenge was accepted, the meeting arranged, we were even allowed an extra 45 minutes paid dinner time. Everyone and his brother attended—the whole labour force, labourers, craftsmen, office workers, directors and certain parasites, who previously had only drawn dividends from our employment but now actually attended the site responsible for their wealth. There never had been such a gathering there since Queen Victoria opened the factory. The local bishop chaired the debate.
George wanted blood, and got it. He did a hatchet job on this economist’s case. He shredded his arguments and mentally castrated him.
After this debunking of the bosses’ hand rag, the shop floor organisation received a tremendous boost. Many workers, myself included, were anxious to get to grips with Marxism. How could we go about it? What could we read? How could we understand it? We bombarded George with these and similar questions. His reply was to recommend and sell us a copy of the Communist Manifesto (price 3p in those days). “Read this, digest it, and we’ll start to discuss any points arising from it at dinner time tomorrow”, he said.
I can still recall my excitement on reading the Manifesto. It hit me like a blow from Joe Louis. The knowledge of history I possessed, having left school at 14, was through the tinted spectacles of historians solely concerned with the reign of this king or that queen, and the adventures of sea captains. History appeared an endless jumble of great men, of little importance to everyday life.
From the Manifesto I read of the history of class struggle, history stripped of the blare of trumpets, the crescendo roll of drums, of the amorous adventures of libidinous monarchs and their court lackeys. History that showed the working class what the exploited and enslaved classes were before it, and what it is itself, and what it must become.
In the 1888 preface to the Manifesto Engels writes:
“In every historical epoch the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organisation necessarily following from it, form the base upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; that the history of these class struggles form a series of evolutions in which nowadays a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class—the proletariat—cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class—the bourgeoisie—without, at the same time, and once and for all emancipating society at large, from all exploitation, oppression, class distinctions and class struggles.
Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
The Manifesto remains to this day unapproached as an introduction to Marxism.
Recently, at a talk on “Marxism and Trade Unionism” held in Islington, I quoted from the Manifesto. It took me back to those machine shop meetings of 50 years ago, and I thought how pleased old George would be to know what happened to at least one of the workers he taught so much to.