The British census of 1851 revealed that for the first time the town population exceeded that of the country. Agriculture, in other words, had become a minority interest. In any event, most of those working in agriculture were wage workers so that even before this time the bulk of the active population were propertyless wage earners. With the progress of industry and the factory system, the proportion of wage workers in the population grew ever larger. Britain in Marx’s time was already a capitalist country with a working class majority, as he himself was well aware. England, he wrote in a letter on behalf of the First International to its French-Swiss Federal Council in 1870
is the only country where there are no longer any peasants, and where land ownership is concentrated in very few hands. It is the only country where almost all production has been taken over on a vast scale under capitalist bosses. It is the only country where the large majority of the population consists of wage-labourers. It is the only country where the class struggle and the organisation of the working class into trade unions have actually reached a considerable degree of maturity and universality. Because of its domination of the world market, it is the only country where any revolution in the economic system will have immediate repercussions on the rest of the world. Though landlordism and capitalism are most traditionally established in this country, on the other hand the material conditions for getting rid of them are also most ripe here (The First International and After, Pelican, p. 115).
Marx attached great importance to this fact that the working class made up the vast majority of the population in Britain. For it meant that the extension of the right to vote there would put political power potentially in the hands of the working class.
As early as February 1848 Marx had realised that universal suffrage in Britain (with its working class majority) would have a quite different social significance than on the Continent (where it was one of the slogans of those who merely wanted to see established a bourgeois democratic Republic). As he wrote in a German-language paper published in Brussels where he was then living:
We believe . . . that the English Charter, if it were to be put forward not by individual enthusiasts for universal suffrage but by a great national party, presupposed a long and arduous unification of the English workers into a class, and that this Charter is being striven for with quite another purpose and must bring about quite different social consequences than the Constitution of America or of Switzerland ever strove for or brought about (Deutsche-Brusseler Zeitung, 13 February 1848, Marx-Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 6, p. 539).
At this time, as illustrated in an article he published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the beginning of 1849, Marx did not believe that the Chartists would be able to win universal suffrage without an armed insurrection, a perspective shared by a minority of the Chartist leaders themselves (Julian Harney, Ernest Jones and others) with whom Marx and Engels were in contact.
After coming to England Marx did not change his mind about the social significance of the Chartist demand for universal suffrage in a country where the working class were the majority of the population, even if he had now come to believe that this could now be achieved by peaceful mass agitation. In an article he wrote on the Chartists for NYDT of 25 August 1852, he wrote:
. . . Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class, and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired labourers. The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class (Marx-Engels, Articles on Britain, p. 119).
Marx returned to this question of the different significance of universal suffrage in Britain as compared with the Continent in an article published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung on 5 June 1855:
After the experiments which destroyed faith in the universal suffrage of 1848 in France, the continentals are prone to underrate the importance and meaning of the English Charter. They overlook the fact that two-thirds of French society are peasants and over one-third townspeople, while in England more than two-thirds live in the towns and less than one-third in the countryside. In England the results of universal suffrage must thus be in the same inverse proportion to its results in France as town and country are in the two empires (Articles on Britain, p. 233).
Since 1842, when “a last but futile attempt to formulate universal suffrage as a common demand of the so-called Radicals and the masses of the people” was made, Marx went on
there has no longer been any doubt as to the meaning of universal suffrage. Nor as to its name. It is the Charter of the classes of people and implies the assumption of political power as a means of meeting their social requirements. That is why universal suffrage, a watchword of universal fraternisation in the France of 1848, is taken as a war slogan in England. There the immediate content of the revolution was universal suffrage; here, the immediate content of universal suffrage is the revolution (Articles on Britain, p. 234).
Universal suffrage, in other words, would place political power in the hands of the working class who Marx expected (over-optimistically, as it turned out) would soon use it to carry out the socialist revolution, dispossessing the capitalist and landlord classes and instituting a classless society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production.
Marx not only supported, through Ernest Jones and the People’s Paper, the campaign of the Chartist rump in the 1850s for universal suffrage, but also, through the First International, the similar campaign of the Reform League in the 1860s.
The Second Reform Act of 1867 by no means provided for universal suffrage, but it did create a situation where the majority of voters in the towns were members of the working class. The experience of the 1868 election—which returned a Liberal government and in which no working class candidate, not even those standing for the Liberal Party, was elected no doubt tempered Marx’s earlier optimism about the “immediate” content of universal suffrage being “the revolution”. But if it was no longer the immediate content, it was nevertheless still a longer term one. Now that the working class was a majority of the electorate it could, if it chose to, use the vote to gain control of political power peacefully, by sending to parliament socialist MPs mandated to institute the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. In a speech in the Hague after the Congress of the First International that had been held there in September 1872 Marx declared, according to a report in the French paper La Liberte:
The workers will have to seize political power one day in order to construct the new organisation of labour . . . We do not claim, however, that the road leading to this goal is the same everywhere. We know that heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various countries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England, and if I was familiar with its institutions, I might include Holland, where the workers may attain their goals by peaceful means. That being the case, we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of the revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour (First International and After, p. 324)
That a peaceful capture of political power was a possibility under certain circumstances remained Marx’s view for the rest of his life. It was not his view, however, that the conversion of the means of production into the common property of the whole of society would necessarily be carried out without any violence whatsoever, even in Britain. Although he believed that the extension of the franchise had given to the working class the possibility of winning political power legally and peacefully, he still expected that they were likely to meet resistance as soon as they began to use this political power against the capitalist and landlord classes.
In Capital Marx had carefully recorded how the capitalist class had resisted the implementation of the Ten Hours Act passed by Parliament in 1847; and he had also observed how the slave-owners of the Southern States of America had preferred armed resistance to the possibility of Congress voting a Bill to emancipate their slaves. Marx expected a similar “slaveholders’ revolt” once the working class began to use the political power they had captured peacefully to legally dispossess the capitalists and landlords. In other words, it was Marx’s view that, in the end, the working class would have to use the full power of the State machine, including the employment of actual physical force against a recalcitrant capitalist minority, in order to establish socialism. This employment of force would, of course, be quite legal, as it would be employed by a State which had come to be controlled, after democratic elections, by a socialist working class majority. It would be the recalcitrant capitalist minority that would be acting illegally in resisting the democratically-expressed will of the majority for a classless society to be established.
In a letter he wrote to H. M. Hyndman (the man who was later to be the moving force behind the formation of the Social Democratic Federation in Britain) on 8 December 1880, Marx declared, using the word “revolution” too loosely, if we may say so, to mean “violence”:
If you say that you do not share the views of my party for England I can only reply that that party considers an English revolution not necessary, but—according to historic precedents—possible. If the unavoidable evolution turns into a revolution, it would not only be the fault of the ruling classes, but also of the working class. Every pacific concession of the former has been wrung from them by “pressure from without”. Their action kept pace with that pressure and if the latter has more and more weakened, it is only because the English working class know not how to wield their power and use their liberties, both of which they possess legally (Marx, Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp. 313-4).
In other words, the working class could capture power peacefully if it made intelligent use of the vote and the freedom to organise politically.
So Marx’s final considered view on this question can be summed up as: possibility of a peaceful capture of political power by the working class; probability of some violent resistance on the part of the capitalists to the use of this power to legally dispossess them. As Engels put it in the preface he wrote in 1886 to the first English edition of Capital, which was published in 1887, four years after Marx’s death:
. . . the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a life-long study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a “pro-slavery rebellion”, to this peaceful and legal revolution.
Britain thus served for Marx, not only as a model for capitalist economic development, but also, with its majority working class and after the extension of the franchise, as a model for political development.
If this lesson which Marx drew from English experience has been largely neglected, this is due to Lenin, who disagreed with Marx on the possibility of a peaceful working class capture of political power in Britain—or, rather, who put forward the absurd view that this was perhaps the case in the 1870s but not later. In actual fact, the circumstances which Marx considered made for a peaceful capture of power—a numerically superior working class, a wide suffrage, stable representative institutions—have become more, not less, widespread since Marx’s day, and not only in Britain. And they have gone so far as to make even Marx’s expected “pro-slavery rebellion” by a capitalist recalcitrant minority a more and more remote possibility.