‘Nothing to Lose But Their Chains’: Politics, Identity and the Working Class by Matthew Kerry

Last week the Tories set out their claim to be the party of the workers in what was another attempt at re-branding the ‘nasty party’ before the European elections this spring. The move reinforces their anti-benefits stance, seeking to corner the Labour party as the party of benefits, and stakes a claim to one of the tenets traditionally central to the left, that of being the defenders of the working class.

Image: Unemployed men march in Canada, c.1930 / Public domain

Image: Unemployed men march in Canada, c.1930 / Public domain

It got me thinking about my thesis (as many things do when you’re so wrapped up in your period of study[1]) and specifically what ‘work’ and being a ‘worker’ meant in 1930s Spain.

In the context of mass-mobilisation, million-strong unions and class-struggle rhetoric, the working class was the pre-eminent political subject in the 1930s. In fact the workers were directly alluded to in the new Constitution, which proclaimed that the Second Republic (1931-1936) was to be a ‘Republic of workers of all classes’.

Two years later, mired in economic problems, the Republican and Socialist government introduced a new law, the ‘Law of Vagrants and Miscreants’ (Ley de vagos y maleantes), which is usually overlooked in the oft-idealised Republic, understood as the Republic of the oppressed.[2] The law could be (and was) used against the penniless – begging was portrayed as antisocial behaviour that was antithetical to the state. This can be seen as underlining the idea that the Socialist party, or rather the ‘Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party’ to give it its full name, was exactly that: the party of the workers.

Not only that but the very meaning of unemployed was different to our perception today. Newspapers counted the number of those obreros (workers) who were in paro forzoso; i.e. a worker who was ‘forcibly’ un-employed. He or she was a worker even if they did not have employment. Rather different to simply someone without a job.

Consequently in the 1930s there was a distinction between the workers, the unemployed and beggars. It was not just a case of the haves versus the have-nots, or the oppressed versus the privileged. From the perspective of 2014, after the development of the European welfare state, such an attitude may strike us as odd. But it also does warn us against retrospectively taking things for granted and against the tendency to see ideology as fixed, forgetting that politics is a relational and dynamic process that changes over time.

It also could seem odd that the Conservative party positions itself as the ‘workers’ party in a post-industrial age in which ‘we’re all middle class now’ and where job titles seem to strenuously avoid any association with the term ‘worker’. But although we may live in a different world to the 1930s, the value of work and of being a worker have not lost their political importance, not least in the politics of identity.

[1] Not least the current echoes of the 1930s in Russia’s statement to defend the Russian speakers in Crimea.

[2] It was later developed by the Francoist dictatorship with a new law in 1954 which was expanded to include the persecution of homosexuality.

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