A Bourgeoisie in Waiting

For Marx, the Britain he had come to live in was a capitalist country governed by a landed oligarchy in the interest of its capitalist class. Men drawn from the ranks of the landowning class occupied the top posts in the state—in the government, in the civil service, in the army and navy, in the church, in the universities—but, in order to retain these privileges for their class, they had to pursue policies that served the interests of those known as the “industrial and commercial classes”.

This situation had been established, said Marx, in 1688 in what the Whigs called the Glorious Revolution, when a section of the landowning class allied itself with the middle class to expel King James II and to replace him, by Act of Parliament, with William of Orange, so establishing a constitutional monarchy in England. The industrial revolution had brought to the fore a new, more aggressive section of the middle class—the industrial capitalists—who were no longer satisfied with the 1688 settlement and who wanted the middle class to become the politically ruling, as well as the economically dominant, class in Britain:

    “A new bourgeoisie of colossal proportions arose; while the old bourgeoisie struggled with the French revolution, the new one conquered the world market. It became so omnipotent that, even before it gained direct political power as a result of the Reform Bill, it forced its opponents to legislate in its interests and in accordance with its requirements. It captured direct representation in Parliament and used this to destroy the last remnants of real power left to the landed proprietors.” (Review of Guizot’s Book, 1850, Exile. p.255).

Even the Tories, the political descendants of that section of the landowning class which had not supported the 1688 revolution, had to pursue pro-middle class politics when in office, as Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) had done when he was briefly Prime Minister in 1834-5 and for a longer period 1841-6. Commenting on Peel’s career after his death in a riding accident in 1850, Marx and Engels wrote:

    “the statesmanship of this son of the bourgeoisie who rose to be leader of the aristocracy consisted in the view that there is today only one real aristocracy: the bourgeoisie. In the light of this belief he continually used his leadership of the landed aristocracy to wring concession from it for the bourgeoisie. This became evident in the question of Catholic emancipation and the reform of the police, by means of which he increased the bourgeoisie’s political power; in the Bank Acts of 1818 and 1844, which strengthened the financial aristocracy; in the tariff reform of 1842 and the free trade legislation of 1846, with which the aristocracy was nothing short of sacrificed to the industrial bourgeoisie” (Review, May-October 1850, Revs; pp. 305-6)

The Repeal of the Corn Laws led to a split in the Tory party, the majority under Lord Derby (1799-1869) and Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) disowning Peel. Peel’s followers – known as “Peelites” – recognised, like the Whigs, that aristocratic government could only continue in Britain by pursuing policies in the interest of the capitalist middle class. In doing so, they were following in the footsteps of an earlier group of Tories, associated with the name of Canning (1770-1827) and including Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), who had come to the same conclusion and had gone over to the Whigs at the time of the 1832 Reform Act, a pro-middle class measure which the die-hard Tories did not want to concede.

Marx referred to the Tories, Whigs and Peelites as “three factions of the Aristocracy”.(1) When in power, they had no alternative but to govern in the interest of the capitalist middle class:

    “every Government, whether Whig, Tory or Coalition, can only keep itself in office, and the bourgeoisie out of office, by doing for them their preliminary work. Go through the records of British legislation since 1825, and you will find that the bourgeoisie is only resisted politically by concession after concession financially. What the Oligarchy fail to comprehend is the simple fact that political power is but the offspring of commercial power and that the class to which they are compelled to yield the latter, will necessarily conquer the former also.” (NYDT, 6 5 1853, Vol 12, p. 70)

There was in fact a Tory government in office in 1825 but, for Marx, it was the Whigs who made a special policy, almost a profession, of governing in the interest of the middle class:

    “the Whigs are the aristocratic representatives of the Bourgeoisie, of the industrial and commercial middle class. Under the condition that the Bourgeoisie should abandon to them, to an oligarchy of aristocratic families, the monopoly of office, they make to the middle class, and assist it in conquering, all those concessions, which in the course of social and political development have shown themselves to have become unavoidable and undelayable.” (NYDT, 21 8 1852, Vol 11, p. 330)

Marx had a special dislike for the Whigs. This was partly derived from a reading of the radical journalist and pamphleteer, William Cobbett (1762-1835), whom Marx admired, describing him as “the most able representative, or rather, the creator of old English Radicalism” and as the first person who “stripped the parasitic Whig Oligarchy of their sham liberalism”. It was in fact from him that Marx borrowed the term “the Oligarchy” to refer to the governing caste in Britain. But another factor in Marx’s special dislike of the Whigs must have been a feeling of disgust at the way in which they seemed to have no other aim than to preserve their position as an exclusive governing caste. Certainly in Marx’s attacks on the Whig leaders of the 1850s, Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell (1792-1878), there is an element of moral indignation at their complete lack of political principle.

British politics in the 1850s was a period of waiting. With the implementation of Free Trade, the capitalist middle class had triumphed economically. It was only a matter of time, as everyone knew, before they would also triumph politically, substituting middle class government for the “outdated, superannuated, obsolete compromise”, as Marx once put it, whereby an aristocracy governed in the interest of the capitalist class. Because of the divisions—even the break-up—of the aristocratic parties there was no stable majority in the House of Commons to pass the necessary pro-middle class reforms in the army, the civil service, the law, the universities, the Church. For this to happen a second Reform Act, extending the franchise so as to weaken aristocratic influence in the House of Commons, was necessary; but the aristocratic parties which together controlled both Houses of Parliament were unable to agree on the terms of such an Act. Reform Bills, proposed by the Whig government in 1852, by the Whig-Peelite Coalition in 1853-4, and by the Tory government in 1859, all failed. The result was that the political situation remained blocked. Artificially prolonged in this way, aristocratic government of a modern capitalist country became more and more obviously inefficient.

Marx, then, did not have a particularly exciting period of British politics to comment on during his period of journalistic activity in the 1850s. But he did clearly identify the general tendency: inefficiency of aristocratic government, break-up of the old parties, preparation by the capitalist middle class to assume full political power. Inevitably, he made errors of judgement such as not foreseeing the formation of a Whig-Peelite coalition after the 1852 elections and declaring in 1858 that the Whigs and Tories were amalgamating into a single party of the landed aristocracy, but his general analysis has been confirmed by later historians.

Marx in Britain, 1849

When Marx came to Britain in August 1849 there was a Whig government, under Lord John Russell, in office. Lord Palmerston was Foreign Secretary. In December 1851, however, Palmerston publicly expressed approval for Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état in France and was forced to resign. In February of the following year he engineered the defeat of the Russell government over its militia bill. A minority Tory government under Lord Derby, with Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer, took over. In July Parliament was dissolved and a general election called. It was just at this that Marx himself began to write for the NYDT and he used this opportunity to introduce his American readers to the various political parties in Britain: first the three aristocratic parties (the Tories, the Whigs and the Peelites) and, then, the parties of the capitalist middle class (the Radicals, led by Bright and Cobden, also called the Manchester School, Free Traders and Financial Reformers) and of the working class (the Chartists, whose militant wing was now led by Ernest Jones).

The result of the general election was indecisive. Nobody appeared to have won, though the Tories had a majority of the Peelites, or “Liberal Conservatives”, were counted with them. In any event, as was the custom, the previous government under Lord Derby continued in office until defeated in Parliament. This came in December when one of the provisions of Disraeli’s budget was rejected by the House of Commons.

The new government which emerged was a coalition between the Whigs and Peelites. The Prime Minister was Lord Aberdeen (1784-1860), a Peelite. Another Peelite, W. E. Gladstone (1809-1898) was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lord Palmerston became Home Secretary, while Lord John Russell was temporarily Foreign Secretary until Lord Clarendon took over in February 1853. The only other Minister who needs to be mentioned is Sir Charles Wood, the President of the Board of Control, in effect the Minister for Indian Affairs, whose proposals for a new Charter for the East India Company were extensively commented on by Marx in the NYDT. The government also had the support of the Radicals and the so-called Irish Brigade, who both supplied nominees to fill some junior Ministerial posts. The Irish Brigade—a party Marx had not mentioned in his pre-election articles in the NYDT—were a group of anti-Tory Irish MPs who represented, essentially, the Irish Catholic middle class which had won a share of political power with the success in 1828 of Daniel O’Connell’s (1775-1847) campaign for Catholic Emancipation, as the removal of political discrimination against Catholics was called. O’Connell had in fact been the leader of this parliamentary group until his death in 1847.

The coalition government, however, was unable to deliver the goods to these minority parties in return for their support: a Reform Bill to extend the franchise had to be withdrawn in 1854 because of opposition in Parliament and a Tenant’s Rights Bill, aiming to give Irish peasants a minimum of protection against their landlords, was thrown out the same year be the House of Lords. The main concern of the government became foreign rather than home affairs, as a result of the revival of the “Eastern Question” as the problems caused by the decline and weakness of the Ottoman Empire were called, as was reflected in Marx’s articles.

In 1853 Tsar Nicholas I revived a Russian claim to be the protector of the Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire (which at this time included what is now Bulgaria as well as parts of modern Rumania and Yugoslavia). The Sultan refused, but under pressure from the Western Powers did agree to discuss the matter. In October Russian troops entered the Danubian Provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia. The Sultan replied by declaring war. In March 1854 Britain and France joined the war on the Turkish side. Their aim was not to overthrow the Tsarist Empire but the lesser one of preventing the Black Sea and the Dardanelles coming under the control of the Russian navy. To achieve this it was decided to attack and destroy the Russian naval base and fort at Sebastopol in the Crimean peninsula. The siege of Sebastopol was conducted with such incompetence and lack of organisation that demands for an inquiry into the conduct of the war were raised. The Free Trade Radicals around Bright and Cobden opposed the war as costly and unnecessary. Marx, who was very much opposed to Russian expansionism and so a supporter of the war, severely criticised them for this in the articles he wrote for the NYDT.

In February 1855 the Aberdeen government was defeated in the House of Commons on a motion to set up a Committee of Inquiry and resigned. A two-week governmental crisis followed in which both Lord John Russell, the Whig leader, and Lord Derby, the Tory leader, failed to form a government. In the end Lord Palmerston himself became, for the first time, Prime Minister. It was this mismanagement of the Crimean War and the resulting political crisis which provided Marx with material for a series of articles in the NOZ in which he argues that the British “constitution”(2), the compromise whereby the capitalist class let the aristocrats occupy the top posts in the State on condition that they pursued pro-capitalist policies, was collapsing.

Sebastopol was finally captured in September 1855 and, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris signed in March 1856, both Russia and Turkey were forbidden to maintain a navy in the Black Sea. Russian expansionism had been temporarily stopped. But another war was brewing. In October 1856 the Chinese authorities in Canton boarded the Arrow, a Chinese-owned but British registered ship. Britain demanded an apology and compensation. The Chinese authorities refused and Britain, aided by France, used this as an excuse for commencing the Second Opium War. Cobden again took up an anti-war position and in March 1857 he proposed a motion in the House of Commons—which was carried—criticising the Palmerston government over this attack. Instead of resigning, Palmerston called an immediate general election which he made a vote of confidence in himself and his government. His critics were routed. Cobden lost his seat in the West Riding of Yorkshire and a Tory was even elected in Manchester, the citadel of the Free Traders.

Palmerston remained the Prime Minister, but his second Ministry was to last for less than a year. The war against China was continued and a mutiny of native soldiers in the British Army in India developed into a full-scale revolt. In January 1858 Orsini, an Italian nationalist, tried to assassinate Napoleon III. When it came out that the plot had been planned in London. Palmerston quickly introduced a Conspiracy to Murder Bill, aimed at curbing the activities of foreign refugees in Britain. When in February an unacceptable amendment to this Bill was carried in the House of Commons Palmerston resigned. Once again, a minority Tory government took over, with Lord Derby as Prime Minister and Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This government fell the following year when its Reform Bill—a complicated measure giving more than one vote to certain people as well as extending the franchise a little—was defeated.

In the general election which followed, the Liberals—as the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals were now in the process of becoming—emerged as the largest party. Palmerston, now in his seventy-fifth year, again became Prime Minister. Gladstone, who had resigned from one of Palmerston’s previous ministries in 1855, now agreed to serve under him, so putting himself in a strong position to emerge as the future leader of the Liberal Party. Cobden refused the post of President of the Board of Trade (which was nevertheless accepted by another Radical Free Trader, Milner-Gibson (1806-1884), but he did negotiate on behalf of the government the 1860 Anglo-French Commercial Treaty which considerably liberalised trade between the two countries.

The 1859 Palmerston administration can be seen as the first Liberal government, but even it was unable to pass a second Reform Bill in 1860. Palmerston’s personal opposition to such a measure delayed any further moves in this direction until after his death at the end of 1865.

Adam Buick


1. NYDT 22/7/1853, Vol 12, p.188. Marx also consciously tried to imitate Cobbett’s style as in the article “The House of Lords and the Duke of York’s Monument” that appeared in the People’s Paper on 19 April 1856 (see Marx’s letter to Engels, 26 April 1856).

2. Britain had, and has, no written Constitution, at least not in a single document. The British “Constitution” was, and still is, a collection of different statutes and customs governing political practice.

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