1980s >> 1985 >> no-966-february-1985

Marx and England before 1849

It was no doubt Engels who first drew Marx’s attention to the key importance of England for any adequate theory of communism. His father was a part-owner in a firm engaged in cotton spinning in the Rhineland as well as in Manchester, then the capital of the world cotton industry.


In November 1842 Engels went to England to work in the office of the Manchester factory of Ermen and Engels. He was already a communist in the sense of wanting to see established a society based on common ownership in which co-operation would replace competition and he soon made contact with like-minded people in England. From November 1843 he was contributing articles to The New Moral World, the organ of Owenite socialism. He was also a regular reader of the Chartist weekly, the Northern Star, then published in Leeds, though he did not contribute any articles to it at this time. He did, however, meet one of its journalists, George Julian Harney (1817—1897), who was later to prove a valuable contact between English and Continental revolutionaries.


If Engels had gone to Manchester earlier on in 1842 he would have witnessed the second wave of Chartist agitation and unrest in Britain. The “People’s Charter” was a document that had been drawn up in 1838 in the form of a Bill to be presented to the House of Commons providing for six changes in the electoral law: universal suffrage for men. secret ballots, equal electoral districts, payment of MPs, no property qualification for MPs. and annual parliamentary elections. In itself this was a demand to continue and complete the “Reform” of Parliament begun with the Reform Act of 1832 enfranchising the capitalist class, or “middle” class as it was then known, but still leaving the workers voteless. A number of Radical MPs, as representatives of the capitalist middle class, had in fact played a part in drafting the Charter, regarding it as a means of further undermining the political power of the landed aristocracy.


The working class, however, whose acceptance of the Charter had been prepared by the trade union agitation and by the formation of Working Men’s Associations up and down the country in the preceding years, gave the Charter a social content — rejection of the economic system of “profit- mongering” and “wage-slavery” which the capitalist class had introduced and was extending — which was to make Chartism essentially a political movement of the working class, distinct from and hostile to the capitalist middle class.


The recognised leader of the Chartists in the 1840s was a former Irish MP and landlord, Feargus O’Connor (1794—1855). O’Connor was a very effective orator and enjoyed immense popularity among the working class. The Chartist movement also had its political thinkers such as James “Bronterre” O’Brien (1805—1864). dubbed by O’Connor “the Chartist schoolmaster” O’Brien had translated into English in 1836 the seminal work of European communism. Buonarotti’s History of Babeufs Conspiracy for Equality (1828). In the columns of the Northern Star and in other Chartist and Radical papers. O’Brien never ceased to emphasise the antagonism of interest between the working class and the middle class and to insist on the need for the workers to gain political power — through the implementation of the Charter — before they could do anything effective to improve their social position.


The Chartists faced competition, in their bid for working class support, from the Anti-Corn Law League which had been set up in 1838 to campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws. Its most prominent leaders were the industrialists John Bright (1811—1889) and Richard Cobden (1804—1865). The Corn Laws, passed after the end of the Napoleonic Wars to protect British (including Irish) agriculture from foreign competition, imposed a duty on imports of corn whenever the price fell below a certain amount. The effect was to maintain the price of corn and so of bread, in Britain at an artificially high level.


The Anti-Corn Law League tried to attract working class support by promising a “cheap loaf”. The Chartists replied that, as a dispute between the capitalist and landlord classes, the repeal of the Corn Laws was not an issue that concerned wage-workers but a diversion from what ought to be their main aim: the winning of political power through the implementation of the Charter. The Chartists also pointed out that a “cheap loaf” would mean cheap wages.


A first petition for the Charter had been rejected by the House of Commons in May 1839. A second, more radical, petition was presented to Parliament in May 1842. As in 1839 it was rejected and. as in 1839, unrest broke out. In July and August, a few months before Engels’ arrival, the North of England experienced a wave of strikes. These were primarily industrial in that the basic aim was to restore the wage levels that had prevailed in 1840, but the demand for the implementation of the Charter was also put forward by some of the strikers. It was suggested at the time that some of the strikes had been deliberately provoked by the employers in order to create unrest as a means of putting pressure on the government to repeal the Corn Laws.


Engels was planning to write a book on the social history of England and, for this, besides reading Chartist and Owenite literature and participating in their meetings, he read the works of English writers on economic theory, or ’political economy” as it was then called. On the basis of this reading he sent an article entitled “An Outline of a Critique of National Economy” to Marx in Paris (who had meantime, during the winter of 1843-4, himself become a communist) which was published in the first — and only issue of the Deutsch–Französische Jahrbücher in February 1844. This article was a criticism of the theories of the political economists, as represented by Adam Smith (1723—1790), David Ricardo (1772— 1823) and his disciples James Mill (1773— 1836) and J.R. McCulloch (1789—1864). and by Malthus (1766—1834) and the Frenchman J.B. Say (1767—1832). It greatly impressed Marx and helped orient his studies towards economics. In fact, the “critique of political economy” which Engels had suggested needed to be done was to become virtually Marx’s life work.


Marx began his study of economics by reading — in French translation — the authors mentioned by Engels and made some preliminary notes for a work on economics of his own, some of which have survived as the ’Paris Manuscripts” of 1844. Marx does refer once or twice to England in these manuscripts noting, for instance, that landed property there was no longer feudal but money-making, a point he was to incorporate into his later analyses of English history, society and politics.


Engels remained in Manchester until August 1844. The book he wrote on his return to Germany was not the social history of England he had originally planned but one describing the terrible conditions under which the working class lived in England which, according to the theories of the political economists, was the richest country in the world. This book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, was published in Leipzig in May 1845 and also influenced Marx’s thinking, this time with regard to the political development of the working class. In the chapter on “Labour Movements”, which gave a very sympathetic account of trade unionism, Chartism and Owenite socialism, Engels outlined a pattern for the evolution of the working class movement under capitalism. Working class resistance to capitalist class domination first took the form, said Engels, of individual acts of crime, then of machine-smashing before evolving into trade unionism with the strike, or “turn-out”, as its weapon. Out of trade unionism, Engels went on, had developed Chartism, a general political movement of the working class against the capitalist class:

Chartism is the compact form of their opposition to the bourgeoisie. In the Unions and turnouts opposition always remained isolated: it was single working-men or sections who fought a single bourgeois. If the fight became general this was scarcely by the intention of the working-men; or, when it did happen intentionally, Chartism was at the bottom of it. But in Chartism it is the whole working-class which arises against the bourgeoisie, and attacks, first of all, the political power, the legislative rampart with which the bourgeoisie has surrounded itself (p.254).

Finally, said Engels, the Chartist movement could be expected to become explicitly socialist (communist).


Marx was expelled from France in February 1845 and went to live in Brussels. Engels joined him there a few months later. In July and August they went to England for six weeks. Marx’s first visit to the country. In London they met Wilhelm Weitling (1809-1864), the German tailor whose communist writings had influenced the German artisans in Paris who had helped convert Marx to communism. They also met Harney, still a journalist on the Northern Star, now edited from London, who agreed to accept articles from Engels, the first of which was published in September. From London Marx and Engels went on to Manchester where they spent most of the time they were in England. Marx was particularly interested in reading some books on economics which he had been unable to obtain on the Continent. particularly those by English-language authors who criticised the existing economic system from a communist or working class point of view such as the Owenite, William Thompson (1785 -1833), from whose An Enquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth he made extensive notes.


Another of these writers who particularly impressed him was John Francis Bray (1809-1897). Bray, a journeyman printer, was the author of Labour’s Wrongs and Labour’s Remedy which had been published in Leeds as recently as 1839. He, like Thompson, had been influenced by Owenite ideas and advocated “the system of community possessions” as the long-term ideal society. As a transition to such a communist society, he proposed the exchange of goods according to their labour content.


In the criticism of Proudhon s views which Marx wrote in the winter of 1846 7 and which was published, in French, as The Poverty of Philosophy in Brussels in July 1847. Marx quoted extensively from Bray (whose book he described as “remarkable ”) in order to show that Proudhon’s views had been anticipated in England:

Anyone who is in any way familiar with the trend of political economy in England cannot fail to know that almost all the Socialists in that country have, at different periods, proposed the equalitarian application of the Ricardian theory. We could quote for M. Proudhon: Hodgskin, Political Economy, 1827; William Thompson. An Inquiry into the Principles of the Distribution of Wealth Most Conducive to Human Happiness, 1824; T.R. Edmonds, Practical Moral and Political Economy. 1828. etc., etc., and four more pages of etc. We shall content ourselves with listening to an English Communist. Mr Bray (p.77).


Later on, after he had moved to England. Marx read other works in this tradition and was particularly impressed by another book by the same Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) he mentions here, Labour Defended against the claims of Capital (1825), describing it in Capital as “this admirable work”. Hodgskin, a retired naval lieutenant, was not in fact an Owenite but he was staunchly pro-trade union and pro-working class.


In a sense Marx, too, could be classed among those who “proposed the equalitarian application of the Ricardian theory” since he also started out from Ricardo’s labour theory of value and analysis of society divided into a landlord class, a capitalist class and a working class and gave these theories a pro-working class interpretation. In fact, until he made the key theoretical distinction (in 1858) between “labour” and “labour power ”, which enabled him to realise that what workers sold to the capitalists for wages was not their labour (the product of their labour, what they produced) but their labour-power (their mental and physical energies, their capacity to work), Marx’s explanation of how the working class was exploited under capitalism was not basically different from those of writers like Thompson, Hodgskin and Bray.


They thought that workers were paid less than the value of what they produced because competition held wages, as the price of their “labour”, down to subsistence levels, the surplus over and above this being the source of the profits of their capitalist employers. Marx’s solution — “union”, “combination”, “association”, “co-operation”. to overcome the effects of competition — was not all that different either. Marx in fact always had the highest respect for the original “English Socialist”. Robert Owen (1771-1858). who made himself the champion of this idea.


But, unlike Owen, Marx held that the working class would have to gain control of political power before anything lasting could be done to improve their lot. This once again was derived from the English working class movement. In the final section of The Poverty of Philosophy on “strikes and combinations of workers”, Marx puts forward the same pattern for the evolution of the understanding and organisation of the working class as Engels, basing himself on the experience of Chartism, had done in 1845:

England, whose industry has attained the highest degree of development, has the biggest and best organised combinations. In England they have not stopped at partial combinations which have no other object than a passing strike, and which disappear with it. Permanent combinations have been formed, trades unions, which serve as ramparts for the workers in their struggles with the employers And at the present time all these local trades unions find a rallying point in the National Association of United Trades, the central committee of which is in London, and which already numbers 80,000 members. The organisation of these strikes, combinations, and trades unions went on simultaneously with the political struggles of the workers, who now constitute a large political party, under the name of Chartists.
The first attempts of workers to associate among themselves always take place in the form of combinations. Large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people unknown to one another. Competition divides their interests. But the maintenance of wages, this common interest which they have against their boss, unites them in a common thought of resistance—combination. Thus combination always has a double aim. that of stopping competition among the workers, so that they can carry on general competition with the capitalist. If the first aim of resistance was merely the maintenance of wages, combinations. at first isolated, constitute themselves into groups as the capitalists in their turn unite for the purpose of repression, and in face of always united capital, the maintenance of the association becomes more necessary to them than that of wages. This is so true that English economists are amazed to see the workers sacrifice a good part of their wages in favour of associations, which, in the eyes of these economists, are established solely in favour of wages. In this struggle — a veritable civil war — all the elements necessary for a coming battle unite and develop. Once it has reached this point, association takes on a political character.
Economic conditions had first transformed the mass of the people in the country into workers. The combination of capital has created for this mass a common situation, common interests. This mass is thus already a class as against capital, but not yet for itself. In the struggle, of which we have noted only a few phases, this mass becomes united, and constitutes itself as a class for itself. The interests it defends become class interests. But the struggle of class against class is a political struggle (pp 194 5).

The same pattern is again described in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) and it remained Marx’s view to the end of his life and was to be the basis for his intervention in the English working class movement in 1852-6 and in 1864-72.


Meanwhile, in 1846, the Anti-Corn Law League had achieved success when the British Parliament voted to repeal the Corn Laws with effect from 1848. This marked the beginning of the era of Free Trade for Britain and was a significant economic event which Marx, as a student of economics, did not let pass without comment. In September 1847 he attended a conference on Free Trade in Brussels. He had intended making a contribution to the discussion, but was denied the opportunity of doing so. The text of his intended speech was later published in the Belgian French-language journal L’Atelier. It was also translated into English and published in the Northern Star, of which Harney was now the editor, on 9 October and so became the first article by Marx to appear in print in England (and indeed in English). Marx returned to the question of Free Trade in another speech in Brussels on 9 January 1848 in which he declared himself in favour of Free Trade on the sole ground that it would hasten the revolutionary confrontation between the working class and the capitalist class:


The English workers have made the English free-traders realise that they are not the dupes of their illusions or of their lies; and if, in spite of this, the workers made common cause with them against the landlords, it was for the purpose of destroying the last remnants of feudalism and in order to have only one enemy left to deal with (pp.241-2).


In November and December 1847 Marx was in England for a second time, to take part in the second congress of the Communist League (Kommunistenbund) at which he and Engels were appointed to draw up a statement of the communist aims and principles of this German workers’ organisation. While he was in London Marx was invited to make one of the speeches at a dinner, organised by the Society of Fraternal Democrats with which Harney was associated. to commemorate the Polish uprising of 1830. This was the first occasion Marx spoke to an audience in England (even though he spoke in German) and. addressing himself to the Chartists, he told them that the best way they could aid the cause of Polish freedom would be to achieve “the victory of the English proletariat over the English bourgeoisie” Marx and Engels later met Harney privately, together with another Chartist and Fraternal Democrat, Ernest Jones (1819-1868), to discuss the organisation of an international congress of “Democrats” (which then referred to those who wanted a thorough-going bourgeois-democratic revolution).


The planned international congress never took place, even though Harney and Jones did meet Marx in Paris in March 1848 where he had returned following the overthrow of King Louis-Philippe in February. It was overtaken by events as the European refugees, including Marx and Engels, hurried back to take part in the bourgeois-democratic revolutions which were breaking out in their native countries. Thus in April Marx moved to Cologne where he revived the newspaper he had edited there before he was a communist in 1842-3 calling it the Neue Rheinische Zeitung. Most of the articles he wrote for this daily concerned the day-to-day conduct of the bourgeois-national-democratic revolution that was then going on in Germany — which Marx held communists should work for on the grounds that it would be, as he and Engels had put it in the Manifesto of the Communist Party, “the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. One or two of the articles did mention England in passing: a comparison of the French and English bourgeois revolutions with current events in Germany and an article on the prospects for the year 1849 which mentioned the abortive “Young Ireland” uprising of June 1848 and which declared:


Only a world war can break old England, as only this can provide the Chartists, the party of the organised English workers, with the conditions for a successful rising against their powerful oppressors. Only when the Chartists head the English government will the social revolution pass from the sphere of utopia to that of reality (184. 1.1.1849 NRhz).


But 1849 was not to live up to Marx’s expectations. Not only was the bourgeois revolution in Germany not immediately followed by a proletarian revolution, but the bourgeois revolution itself did not take place properly as the King of Prussia re-asserted his feudal-bureaucratic rule over the Rhineland. As for the Chartists, they had already missed their chance in February 1848 when they had failed to react after Parliament rejected. for the third time, a Petition for the Charter. The British government was quick to exploit this weakness and Ernest Jones and a number of other prominent Chartists were already in prison while Marx was speculating about the conditions for a successful Chartist uprising in Britain.


In June Marx left Cologne for Paris and, being made unwelcome there, moved on in August to London, where his permanent home  was to be for the rest of his life.


Adam Buick