August 16, 2009 was the 190th anniversary of a massacre in Manchester, resulting from the deployment of the army to deal with an agitation by workers.
The Industrial Revolution began in England, and the emergence of the industrial working class brought to the fore a new social and political force in world history. The bloody events of 190 years ago, on August 16, 1819, when a mass workers' protest in Manchester demanding political reform and labour rights was broken up by the army, with considerable loss of life, stand out as a stark warning to socialist activists everywhere that the ruling classes will react with violence and terror when their power and privileges are challenged.
On August 16, 1819, mounted regular troops and yeomanry of the British army, acting on the instructions of government officials, attacked without warning a mass meeting of more 100,000 people drawn from the industrial centres of Lancashire in the north-west of England. The meeting, held on St. Peter's Field in the centre of Manchester, the major industrial city of Lancashire, had been organised as part of a national campaign to win a radical reform of the British parliament and to redress the economic grievances of working people. More than 400 men, women and children were killed or seriously injured as a result of this ``action''.
One of the cavalry units involved -- the 11th Hussars -- had been present at the Battle of Waterloo, which had occurred four years earlier. As soon as the massacre became known to the public, the savage sobriquet ``Peterloo'' was universally adopted.
The August 16 massacre was one outcome of an extraordinarily powerful and determined agitation for social and political justice in England, which at times approached pre-revolutionary proportions. The primary social force behind this mass agitation was the new working class.
This new class, the industrial proletariat, emerged from the Industrial Revolution, a transformation of economic and social relations that began towards the end of the 18th century, primarily in parts of north-west England. The cradle of this revolution was in fact south-east Lancashire, and Manchester in particular. Here, technological innovations developed in the latter third of the 18th century, such as the steam engine, the power loom and the spinning jenny, were applied to the previously dispersed, domestic-based cotton industry then in existence. The ``putting-out'' system, whereby spinners and weavers worked at home at more or less their own pace, was replaced by vast factories employing hundreds or thousands of workers. The new machine industry was concentrated in these factories. Raw materials and fuel for the machines came from the coal and iron extraction industries then emerging in other parts of England, Scotland and Wales. Around the factories grew up large industrial towns such as Rochdale, Stockport, Oldham and Blackburn; as well as the world's first industrial city -- Manchester.
The previously existing social order broke up in Lancashire and other emergent industrial districts, and was replaced by a new one. Ties of dependence descended from feudalism -- a deferential hierarchy linking ``masters'' and ``men''; the static, rigid order overseen by landlord and parson: all this was burst asunder and replaced by the cut-throat world of capitalist competition. In these regions the whole pattern of life was revolutionised.
By 1800, of English cities, Manchester was second only to London in size. Near to the centre of Manchester, in large opulent houses, lived the new rich -- the capitalist factory owners. Surrounding the factories, the workers and their families lived. Many of these workers were ruined handloom weavers or hand spinners forced to seek work in factory towns like Manchester, as competition from cheap, machine-produced goods forced them out of their traditional occupations. Many capitalists made quick fortunes raising jerry-built, back-to-back slums to house the workers. Almost without exception these slums were overcrowded, damp, ill-lit, without sanitation, and without running water or gardens.
Many who sought employment were denied it by the frequent economic slumps that punctuated the evolution of capitalist industry. Those who did find work were faced with ruthless exploitation and appalling working conditions. Long hours -- 14 hours per day was usual -- abysmally low wages, child labour, and dangerous, unguarded machinery were the norm. Sexual abuse of women by foremen and capitalists was rampant. Immigrant workers, especially those from Ireland, fared particularly badly.
The new working class was by no means a ``dormant, passive mass'' in the face of these conditions of life and work. It hit back at its oppressors in an increasingly intelligent, organised and effective way. Working-class radicalism in England was on the rise when the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Jacobin democratic clubs sprang up across the country during the 1790s, inspired by the revolution in France and by widely circulated books such as Tom Paine's The Rights of Man.
Graham Milner is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Perth, Australia. The above material has been extracted from an article by him appearing at the Links website