England as Marx’s Model

“In this work”, wrote Marx in the 1867 Preface to the first German edition of Capital, “I have to examine the capitalist mode of production, and the conditions of production and exchange corresponding to that mode. Up to the present time, their classic ground is England. This is the reason why England is used as the chief illustration in the development of my theoretical ideas”.

In fact, the last part of Volume I of Capital, on “so-called primitive accumulation”, is virtually a short history of the economic and social development of England from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th century, Marx explains again:

“The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process . . .In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form” (last paragraph of Chapter XXVI on “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation”).

Only in England had society come to be divided into three distinct classes, each with its own particular relationship to the means of wealth production:

— the landlord class which monopolised the land and other natural resources;

— the capitalist class which owned the man-made buildings, instruments and machines with which production was carried out; and

— the working class which owned nothing but its ability to work, which it sold for wages and who carried out the actual work of producing wealth.

Marx inherited this three-class analysis of society from the classical political economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, but gave it a working-class interpretation by showing that the source of both the profits of the capitalists and the rents of the landlords was the unpaid labour of the workers. In actual fact, even with Ricardo, who wrote his On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation as late as 1817, farming is taken as the typical “industry”, the capitalist being a tenant farmer renting the land from a landlord and employing agricultural wage labourers. With Marx, however, the emphasis shifts to manufacturing industry, in particular the spinning of raw cotton into yarn.

Marx took the cotton spinning industry as his model because it was the industry in which the “factory system” had first been introduced and where it was still most widespread at the time he was writing (first half of the 1860s). At that time machines were still made by artisan methods, not by other machines, nor by factory production. Afterwards of course the factory system spread to other industries, including the making of machines and soon after Marx’s death in 1883 the Cotton Age was to give way to the Age of Steel, to metal-working replacing cotton-spinning as the key capitalist industry.

So Marx was studying factory production, rather than cotton-spinning as such. With the cotton industry he was studying the future of other industries, just as in studying England he was also considering the future of other countries. Marx was very careful to define precisely what he meant by a factory: a workplace where production was carried out by power-operated machines and where the workforce was reduced to the status of machine-minders (and of machine maintainers and repairers). Thus, when he chose a typical example of a factory, it was one in which cotton was spun into yarn by self-acting mules powered by a coal-fired steam engine. Others, especially at the beginning, were powered by water wheels.

Factory production spread rapidly in the cotton industry in the period 1815 to 1840. The uncontrolled and ruthless exploitation of the workers during this period — this was the time of the prolongation of the working day and of children down the ones, denounced with such vehemence by Marx in Capital — provoked a reaction, both from the working class and from a section of the landlord class. It also led to the curbing, through the Factory Acts, of the freedom of action of the “cotton lords” and “millocracy”, as the new factory-owning capitalist class were known in working class circles.

The repeal of the Corn Laws from 1848 opened up a new period of capitalist expansion. Writing of the period 1846-66, Marx remarked:

“No period of modern society is so favourable for the study of capitalist accumulation as the period of the last 20 years. It is as if this period had found Fortunatus’ purse. But of all countries England again furnishes the classical example, because it holds the foremost place in the world-market, because capitalist production is here alone completely developed, and lastly, because the introduction of the Free-trade millennium since 1846 has cut off the last retreat of vulgar economy.” (Chapter XXV “The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation”, Section 5(a))

Marx went on to show, as he had already done in the Inaugural Address he had written for the IWMA in 1864, that the majority of the working class had not benefited from the enormous growth of wealth during this period. The agricultural workers (1) certainly had not, nor had those employed in the “sweated trades” whose plight Marx described in detail on the basis of official documents.

The census of 1851 revealed that for the first time the town population in Britain 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 Marx himself was well aware. England, he wrote in a letter 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 by the capitalist form, in other words with work combined 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.”

Marx attached great importance to the 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 their hands.

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-Brüsseler Zeitung, 13 February 1848).

At this time, as the article he published in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung at the beginning of 1849 illustrates, Marx did not believe that the Chartists would be able to win universal suffrage without an armed insurrection, a view 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 in 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 socialist 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 returned to this question of the different significance of universal suffrage in Britain as compared with on 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 two empires.”

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 the 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.”

Universal suffrage, in other words, would place political power in the hands of the working class who Marx expected (somewhat over-optimistically, as it turned out) would soon use it to carry out the communist 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 IWMA, 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, 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, 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 International Working Men’s Association in September 1872 Marx declared, according to a report in the French paper La Liberté:

“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.”

That a peaceful capture of political power was a possibility under certain circumstances remained Marx’s view for the rest of his life (2). It was not Marx’s 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 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 class. 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 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 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.


1. Marx welcomed the formation of a trade union by agricultural workers in Scotland in 1865 as “a historical event” (Capital, Chapter X “The Working Day”, Section 3, footnote). He saw it as a sign that even this downtrodden section of the working class was preparing to fight back.

2. In 1880, less than ten years after the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune by the French Third Republic, we even find him talking of converting universal suffrage in France “from the instrument of fraud it has been up till now into an instrument of emancipation” (Preamble to the Programme of the “Federation of the Party of Socialist Workers in France”).

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