Marx and the workers’ movement
Marx was not just a passive commentator on the British political scene in the 1850s. He was also a participant in the Chartist movement, at least until 1856, and in the campaign waged by David Urquhart (1805-1877) against what the latter saw as “the Russian menace”.
After its failure in February 1848 and the repression which followed, Chartism was never again a mass movement. The National Charter Association, and its Executive, did however survive as an organisation, though many former Chartist leaders got involved in other movements. Fergus O’Connor, who had been elected MP for Nottingham in 1847 (the only Chartist ever to be elected as such) lost his seat in the 1852 election. He was later declared insane and died in a mental asylum in 1855 (Marx’s generous obituary of him appeared in the Neue Oder Zeitung (NOZ) on 15 September).
Bronterre O’Brien formed a separate organisation in which emphasis was put on the social changes to be made once the Charter had given the working class political power, such as the nationalisation of land and the railways and the establishment of a single State bank. The O’Brienites became in fact a distinct sect within the British working class movement which survived into the 1880s, whose members Marx was to meet later during his second period of participation in the working class movement in Britain between 1864 and 1872.
Others campaigned to repeal the so-called “taxes on knowledge” — the stamp duty and taxes on paper and advertisements which artificially raised the price of newspapers to a level beyond which many workers could afford. Others, such as Harney, supported Urquhart’s anti-Russia campaign. The Chartist Executive split in 1852 on the question of whether or not to co-operate with the middle class Radicals to achieve the aims of the Charter. Those who, grouped around Ernest Jones, wanted Chartism to continue to be a working class movement hostile to the capitalist middle class set up their own organisation.
Of the Chartist leaders in 1848 it was thus Jones who emerged as the champion of militant Chartism in the 1850s. He had been released from his two-year prison term for sedition at the end of 1850 and in 1851 started his own paper, Notes to the People, which the following year became a weekly called The People’s Paper. Marx, who was in close touch with Jones, contributed articles to this paper from 1852 to 1856.
In the 1852 General Election, as Marx reported in the New York Daily Tribune (NYDT), Chartists put up a number of candidates, including Jones at Halifax. He polled — and this was not reported by Marx — a mere 37 votes, a confirmation that the vast majority of workers were excluded from the vote, but also of the decline of Chartism since 1847, in the same constituency, Jones had polled 280 votes. But the Chartist movement had always had its ups and downs, corresponding with periods of depression and prosperity.
The early 1850s were a period of prosperity, though not of working class inactivity. The widescale emigration of the period temporarily put the working class in a stronger bargaining position. Successful strikes for higher wages became more and more frequent. The culminating point of this strike movement was the year 1853. Jones decided that the time was ripe for a Chartist campaign in the industrial districts of England and in June left London for the North to address a number of mass meetings, a speaking tour given good coverage by Marx in the NYDT.
While Jones was in the North one of the biggest industrial disputes of the 1850s was brewing: the lock-out of the Preston cotton workers. Preston was one of the three main centres of the Lancashire cotton-spinning industry, the other two being Ashton and Stockport. In the summer of 1853 the cotton spinners of Stockport went on strike for a 10 per cent wage increase — which they won, thanks to financial aid from other groups of workers. In the autumn the cotton spinners of Preston, joined by the weavers, made a similar demand on their employers.The employers’ answer was a general lock-out and by October 18,000 workers in Preston were without work or wages.
Once again a solidarity campaign was launched by the trade unions to raise money from other sections of the working class. Ernest Jones joined and played a prominent part in this campaign. he suggested the calling of a “Labour Parliament”, to be composed of delegates from workers and trade unions in the Lancashire area. In November a Chartist meeting in Manchester voted for the calling of such a congress, referring to the need for “a united and mass movement of the working classes, based on a national organisation, and guided by one directing body” (quoted by Marx in NYDT, 12 December 1853). The Labour Parliament did not in fact meet until March 1854, by which time the Preston workers were well on the way to defeat. Marx was elected an honorary delegate and, unable to attend, sent a fine statement of his faith in the capacity of the working class to emancipate itself, which was published in the People’s Paper.
Marx covered extensively the 1853 strike wave for the NYDT, describing his series of articles on the subject as his “history of strikes” (letter to Engels, 30 September 1853). Basing himself on an analysis of economic trends, he had said right from the start that the Preston workers were likely to fail as they had left their demand for a wage increase too late. They should have demanded it earlier in 1853 or in 1852 as there were signs, even in September and October 1853, of a downturn in activity. Under these circumstances, Marx argued, the employers were likely to welcome a stoppage of work while they cleared the surplus stocks that were building up.
This may well have been one of the employers’ considerations, but they probably did not expect that the workers would put up such a fight before being finally defeated. The lock-out had begun in October 1853. By March 1854, when the Labour Parliament met, the Preston workers had still refused to give in. The employers then resorted to employing blacklegs, both men and women, from the agricultural districts of Ireland. The workers naturally opposed this and the employers had a number of their leaders arrested for “molesting and obstructing” the blacklegs. The workers held out for another month or so before going back in May without the wage increase they had originally demanded, though the charges against their arrested leaders were not proceeded with. This was a defeat for the working class, but the Preston workers’ determination and the support they had from other workers, which had allowed them to hold out for seven months, must have had some effect on the employers, making them think twice before again taking on the cotton workers in this way.
Marx, as we have noted, did not really expect this and other strikes to succeed in view of the changed economic situation. This is not to say that he was not in favour of the strikes taking place. Far from it. The workers had to test the situation. As Marx said, in a comment which shows the extent to which he had grasped trade union tactics:
Under certain circumstances, there is for the workingman no other means of ascertaining whether he is or not paid to the actual value of his labour, but to strike or to threaten to do so” (NYDT, 17 October 1853).
Further, if workers did not fight to maintain their living standards they would be reduced to the level of slaves, incapable of emancipating themselves. Criticising those socialists and others who opposed strikes Marx wrote:
I am, on the very contrary, convinced that the alternative rise and fall of wages, and the continual conflicts between masters and men resulting therefrom, are, in the present organisation of industry, the indispensable means of holding up the spirit of the labouring classes, of combining them into one great association against the encroachments of the ruling class, and of preventing them from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production. In a state of society founded upon the antagonism of classes, if we want to prevent slavery in fact as well as in name, we must accept war. In order to rightly appreciate the value of strikes and combinations, we must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the apparent insignificance of their economical results, but hold, above all things, in view their political consequences. Without the great alternative phases of dullness, prosperity, over-excitement, crisis and distress, which modern industry traverses in periodically recurring cycles, with the ups and downs of wages resulting from them, as with the constant warfare between masters and men closely corresponding with those variations in wages and profits, the working classes of Great Britain would be a heartbroken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass, whose self-emancipation would prove as impossible as that of the slaves of Ancient Greece and Rome. We must not forget that strikes and combinations among the serfs were the hot-beds of the mediaeval communes, and that those communes have been in their turn, the source of life of the now ruling bourgeoisie (NYDT, 14 July 1853).
This, of course, is the same perspective of a political movement — here described as “one great association” — of the working class developing out of trade union struggles that Marx had learnt from the experience of the pre-1848 Chartist movement and had expressed both in the Poverty of Philosophy and in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx, it was this that was the importance of the 1853 strike wave. Even if the strikes failed economically, they would have helped raise the political consciousness of the workers:
. . . should, as I suppose, the depression prove lasting, the work people will soon get the worst of it, and have to struggle — very unsuccessfully — against reduction. But then their activity will soon be carried over to the political field, and the new organisation of trades, gained in strikes, will be of immense value to them (NYDT, 17 October 1853).
I have repeatedly stated that the turn-outs of the men, by beginning at too late an epoch, when the opportunities afforded by the unprecedented prosperity were already vanishing away, could not prove successful in an economical point of view, or as far as their immediate end was concerned. But they have done their work. They have revolutionized the industrial proletariat, and, stirred up by dear food and cheap labour, the political consequences will show themselves in due time (NYDT, 16 December 1853).
Marx was a little over-optimistic here. There was to be no Chartist revival. After the defeat of the Preston workers, the Labour Parliament quietly disappeared. Jones returned to London. An important factor in this ebbing of working class activity was the fact that since March 1854 Britain had been at war with Russia in the Crimea (a war which, incidentally, both Jones and Marx urged the workers to support). The war dragged on for two years and it was only in 1855 that Jones relaunched agitation for the traditional Chartist demand for the reform of Parliament to achieve an effective universal male suffrage. Marx once again let his enthusiasm carry him away, declaring in the NOZ of 6 March 1855:
A few months more, and the crisis in the manufacturing districts will reach the 1842 level, if not surpass it. But as soon as its effect is generally felt by the working classes, the political movement, which among these classes has been more or less drowsing for the past six years and has retained only the cadres for new agitation, will begin again.
In June Marx attended a mass meeting in Hyde Park to protest against proposals before Parliament to tighten up the law on Sunday opening and drinking. It was obviously the first time that he had ever seen a meeting of this size and he was so carried away that he reported for the NOZ (28 June) that “the English Revolution began yesterday in Hyde Park”. In fact of course it was nothing of the sort and over the next few years even the Chartist “cadres”, faced with the passivity of the working class, began to to become disillusioned and demoralised.
Marx continued his collaboration with Jones and the People’s Paper during 1856. In April he made one of the speeches at a dinner held to mark the fifth anniversary of the paper’s first issue, his first public speech in English. Once again he expressed his confidence in the ability of the working class to take humanity on to the next stage in social evolution.
1857 was an election year and Jones was, as on previous occasions, a candidate, this time in Nottingham, O’Connor’s old constituency. This was the election Palmerston had called to get a vote of confidence for his administration and in which the Radicals suffered a serious reverse.
Jones’ paper was now in financial difficulties and the working class appeared to be completely apathetic; there were no strike waves, nor political discontent. This led Jones to reconsider his whole strategy and to drop his opposition to collaboration with the middle class Radicals to achieve democratic reforms. In fact he went so far as to be prepared to give up all the demands of the Charter except universal suffrage, thus ceasing in effect to be a Chartist. The deal he hoped to make with the middle class radicals was their accepting universal suffrage in return for the Chartists (whom Jones presumed to speak for) giving up the demand for secret ballots. This deal was to be made at a Chartist-Radical conference which Jones was planning to call. When Jones made this proposal in November 1857 Marx broke with him; thus the article on the “Divine Right of the Hohenzollern” which had appeared on 13 December1856 turned out to be the last article marx wrote for the People’s Paper.
Jones’ Conference took part in London in February 1858, but did not result in much. Jones was disowned by other Chartists, including Bronterre O’Brien, who proclaimed their loyalty to all six points of the original Charter. Financial difficulties forced Jones to sell the People’s Paper to a Radical newspaper group later that year and it thus appeared as a separate publication. Jones resumed his profession as a barrister, though he was again a candidate in Nottingham in the 1859 election.
The question of co-operation with the Radicals had been a controversial issue within the Radical movement right from the start, from the time of the first Chartist Convention in 1839. This was because the working class and the capitalist class did in fact have an interest in the extension of the franchise, the former to gain a weapon they could use later to achieve their own emancipation, the latter to weaken the political power and privileges of the landlord class. Not even Marx was opposed on principle to a co-operation between the working class and the capitalist middle class to achieve the democratisation of the British political system. What Marx was opposed to was the working class giving up its political autonomy and becoming just the tail-end of the middle class Radicals.
Marx always accepted that the Radicals had a role to play in the fight for political democracy in Britain. Indeed he was very interested in the conditions which might lead them to fight for this in a determined way. He described the Radicals as “the party of the self-conscious bourgeoisie: (NYDT, 25 August 1852), by which he meant the class-conscious section of the bourgeoisie, the section which realised that there was a conflict of interest between their class and the landlord class which could only be settled when the latter had been deprived of its power and privileges. Thus John Bright stated in a speech quoted by Marx in another NYDT article that “everything the country has gained since the revolution of 1688 . . . has been gained in a manly contest of the industrial and commercial classes against the aristocratic and and privileged classes of the country” (NYDT, 23 February 1853). This was the sort of talk from the capitalist middle class that Marx liked to hear. He wanted their “manly contest” against the landlord class to be successful, so as to create the conditions for a straight fight between the capitalist class and the working class, in which the newly-won vote would be a weapon in the hands of the workers.
So the question at issue between him and Jones was not over whether or not there should be an alliance between the working class and the capitalist class to achieve the Charter (effective universal suffrage) but over how this alliance should arise. Marx wanted, if you like, the middle class to ally itself to the working class rather than the working class to ally itself to the middle class.
In 1850 Marx and Engels had written:
Despite this split and the emergence of more extreme demands, the Chartists, remembering the circumstances under which the Corn Laws were repealed, still suspect that in the next crisis they will once again have to form an alliance with the industrial bourgeoisie, the Financial Reformers, and that they will have to help them defeat their enemies, forcing concessions from them in their turn. This will certainly be the position of the Chartists in the next crisis (Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue, May-October 1850).
This conclusion was based at that time on their experience of the abortive German bourgeois revolution and the roles the middle class and the working class had played in it. But greater familiarity with the English political scene did not lead Marx to alter this view. In one of a series of articles he wrote for the People’s Paper analysing Gladstone’s 1853 budget, he discussed what might happen if Gladstone’s proposal to bring taxes on income from landed property into line with those on other incomes was rejected by the landed interest in Parliament:
If, however, the country party once more obtain the upper hand, the middle class cannot get rid of them without remodelling the rotten oligarchic parliament and then it is no longer in their power to agitate for a limited reform, but they must go the whole length of the people’s demands. The people, of course, can never without abandoning their principles and their interests, join and appeal to the middle class but for the bourgeoisie, it would not be the first time that they are forced to throw themselves on the shoulders of the people (PP, 30 April 1853).
Marx felt, in other words, that the working class should concentrate on building up its own strong, independent political movement, which the capitalist middle class would then be obliged to offer concessions to, in order to win its support for the struggle against the landlord class. Jones had once favoured this policy too, and Marx had supported him for doing so, but Jones was now proposing to go to the middle class party — the Radicals — offering them concessions in return for working class support. For Marx, such a policy meant the working class “abandoning both their principles and their interests” and he severely criticised it.
Marx, it should be added, was equally critical of the capitalist middle class for not waging thoroughly enough the “manly contest . . . against the aristocratic and privileged classes of the country” of which Bright had spoken. He noted how they accepted aristocratic government as long as it pursued policies in their own economic interest and were only prepared to struggle against it when it departed from this tacit understanding by bringing in some measure to benefit the landlords at the expense of the capitalists. This led Marx to favour what the French call la politique du pire, to support the worst alternative, in this case to prefer a reactionary aristocratic government defending the privileges of the landlord class to an aristocratic government which pursued capitalist class policies. Only in this way, Marx suggested, could the middle class be goaded into taking action to end the political privileges of the landlord class, so clearing the way for the working class to use the resulting political democracy in its own interest, against the capitalist class.
Thus, in the same article on Gladstone’s budget in the People’s Paper, immediately preceding the passage we have already quoted, Marx wrote that the defeat of Gladstone’s proposal to equalise taxes on landed and other incomes
would certainly promote the interests of the people. One thing is clear: as long as an aristocratic coalition does the work required from them by the manufacturing and trading class, the latter will neither make any political effort themselves, nor allow the working class to carry their own political movement (PP, 30 April 1853)
Marx was deluding himself if he really thought that a reactionary government, whether under Palmerston or the Tories, would lead to a “revolutionary” situation. Certainly Palmerston’s victory in 1857 did goad the radicals into insisting more forcefully on the need for an extension of the franchise; but how wrong Marx’s assessment was can be seen from the fact that Lord Palmerston’s personal opposition to reform delayed, without inciting any serious popular discontent, any move in this direction till after his death in 1865 and that the Second Reform Act, when it came in 1867, was passed under a Tory government.
The 1850s ended with another lock-out that assumed national importance. For some years trade unions in the building industry had been agitating for a reduction in their working day from 10 to 9 hours. In the summer of 1859 one employer dismissed a trade unionist for having taken part in a delegation to him to put forward this demand. His fellow workers naturally responded by going on strike. The London building employers decided to use the occasion to try to break the power of the building trades’ unions. They locked out their workers, saying that they would only re-employ those who agreed to sign a “document” repudiating trade unionism. Other trade unions throughout the country rallied round the building workers and the dispute continued for six months. It was finally settled in February 1860 in a draw: the workers dropped their demand for a 9-hour day and the employers withdrew “the document”.
A direct result of the builder’s lock-out and the solidarity movement around it was the creation of the London Trades Council in May 1860, at a meeting called by the builders’ strike committee. Trades Councils, which already existed in some other towns and cities, were committees formed by delegates from the various trade unions in a particular area. They were mainly concerned with trade union matters, but also provided an opportunity for trade unionists to discuss broader political questions. Some of those who were prominent in the London Trades Council were very much interested in politics, not just matters of immediate concern to workers such as the law on trade unions or the extension of the franchise, but also in foreign questions like the American Civil War and the campaign for Italian unity. It was this new generation of working-class militants who were to replace Jones as Marx’s contacts when he resumed participation in the working-class movement in Britain in 1864.