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7 Three Organic Crises in Britain The 1830B and 1840a . In Chapter 4 the discussion ofGramsci's concept oforganic crisis was illustrated by the crisis in Italian society lasting from about 1910 to 1921, when it was resolved by the rise offascism. Coming nearer home, it is possible to distinguish at least three periods of transition in the past ISO years of British history which may qualify as organic crises in Gramscian terms. The following remarks are necessarily tentative and sketchy, and greatly oversimplify a complex historical process, but may serve to illustrate the ways in which the British ruling class has maintained its hegemony when confronted with profound economic and social changes and with the growing strength ofthe working class movement. The first ofthese crises ofhegemony was in the second quarter of the nineteenth century when the rapid growth of factory industry and of the urban population, combined with all the other changes brought about by the industrial revolution, gave rise to a serious disequilibrium in the political structures inherited from the previous century. For the first time in British history a powerful working-class movement emerged, compounded of the radical democratic tradition of Paine and Cobbett, Luddism, and early trade unionism, and above all the new social force of Chartism. The old ways of ruling were 52 THREE ORGANIC CRISES IN BRITAIN becoming unworkable, and the 1830s and 1840s witnessed a prolonged struggle to elaborate new methods. Part ofthe answer was the creation of more effective coercive institutions such as the new police forces and the new Poor Law. But what was notable about the mid-Victorian period was the degree to which the urban bourgeoisie was able to gain consent to its leadership in society through a willingness to make the necessary compromises and concessions. It was certainly helped by the division within the working class caused by the emergence ofan upper stratum of skilled workers and the reformist outlook they developed. But the key to its success was that the skilled workers achieved a measure of representation within society through the development of their own organisations, especially trade unions, co-operative and friendly societies. The relative stability of the new system rested on the recognition of the autonomy of these new working-class institutions, so that consent to the leadership of the ruling class was actively and spontaneously generated rather than imposed from above. The growth of this autonomous working-class movement under reformist leaders (who were ready to engage in hard-fought trade-union struggles but did not challenge the basic assumptions of capitalism) prepared the way for the extension of the vote in 1867 and 1884. As Robert Gray has written: 'Britain is in many ways the "classic" country, both of democratic struggle (from the English Revolution to the Chartists and beyond) and of its incorporation into political life under bourgeois leadership.'14 There were of course many other factors (such as the development of modern political parties in the shape of the Liberal and Conservative Parties, alternating in office), which contributed to the hegemony of the British ruling class after Chartism died down. But the question of autonomy for working-class organisations deserves special emphasis. A ruling class is more authentically hegemonic the more it leaves the subordinate classes scope for organising themselves into autonomous social forces. The labour movement in a country such as Britain will only be able to mount an effective challenge 53 GRAMscrs POLITICAL THOUGHT to the hegemony of the capitalist class if it builds up a broad alliance of social forces under its leadership, based on a genuine recognition that the autonomy of these social forces must be respected, and that they each have their own contribution to make to the new socialist strategy. This is a crucial aspect of revolutionary strategy - Gramsci's war of position - which will be taken up again in later chapters. From about 1910 to 1945 In the years from about 1910 to 1914 the stability of British political life was severely shaken by a series of massive popular movements. The struggle between capital and labour reached a new pitch of intensity in a number of great national strikes by miners, railwaymen, dockers and others. There was also the militant campaign of the suffragettes led by the Pankhursts for the extension of the vote to women; and the rise of the Irish national movement leading to the Home Rule Bill, bitterly opposed by the Protestant minority in Ulster, and culminating in the Curragh...


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