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The British Constitution[53]

Karl Marx

London, March 2. While in every particular the British Constitution has failed at every point where the war has put it to the test, the coalition Ministry at home, the most constitutional of all ministries in the history of England, has broken up. Forty thousand British soldiers have died on the shores of the Black Sea—victims of the British Constitution! Officers, General Staff, Commissariat, Medical Department, Transport Service, Admiralty, Horse Guards[a], Ordnance Office, Army and Navy, all have broken down and have discredited themselves in the esteem of the world; yet all have had the satisfaction of knowing that they have simply done their duty in the eyes of the British Constitution! The Times spoke more truly than it surmised when it exclaimed with reference to this universal bankruptcy: "It is the British Constitution that is under trial."[b] It has been tried and found guilty.

But what is the British Constitution? Does it essentially consist of a representative system and a limitation of the executive power? These features distinguish it neither from the Constitution of the United States of North America nor from the constitutions of the innumerable British joint-stock companies which understand "their business". The British Constitution is indeed nothing but an antiquated, obsolete, out-of-date compromise between the bourgeoisie, which rules not officially but in fact in all decisive spheres of civil society, and the landed aristocracy, which governs officially. Originally, after the "glorious" revolution of 1688, only a section of the bourgeoisie, the aristocracy of finance[54], was included in the compromise. The Reform Bill of 1831 admitted another section, the millocracy[c] as the English call it, i.e. the high dignitaries of the industrial bourgeoisie[55]. The history of legislation since 1831 is the history of the concessions which have been made to the industrial bourgeoisie, from the new Poor Law to the repeal of the Corn Laws[56] and from the repeal of the Corn Laws to the death duties on landed property.

Even if the bourgeoisie —which is only the highest stratum of the middle classes— was on the whole acknowledged also politically as the ruling class, this was only on condition that the entire system of government in all its detail, even the executive department of the legislative power, i.e. the actual making of laws in both Houses of Parliament, remained safely in the hands of the landed aristocracy. [About] 1830 the bourgeoisie preferred the renewal of the compromise with the landed aristocracy to a compromise with the mass of the English people. Now the aristocracy, which, subject to certain principles laid down by the bourgeoisie, rules supreme in the Cabinet, in Parliament, in the administration, in the army and the navy —this section of the British nation, relatively the most important section, has just now been compelled to sign its own death warrant and to admit under the eyes of all the world that it no longer has the calling to govern Britain. One need only observe the attempts to galvanise its corpse! Ministry upon ministry is formed merely to go into dissolution after a regime of a few weeks. The crisis is permanent, the government only provisional. All political action is suspended, and everybody admits that his only aim is to keep the political machinery oiled sufficiently to prevent it from seizing up completely. The House of Commons does not even recognise itself in ministries created in its own image.

In the midst of this general helplessness not only has war to be waged, but an enemy even more dangerous than the Emperor Nicholas has to be fought. This enemy is the crisis in trade and industry which since last September is growing more violent and universal every day. Its iron hand immediately closed the mouths of the superficial apostles of free trade who preached for years that glutted markets and social crises had been banished forever into the shadowy realm of the past since the repeal of the Corn Laws. The glutted markets are there, but now nobody cries more loudly about the lack of prudence which prevented the manufacturers from limiting production than the selfsame economists who five months ago still taught—with the infallibility of dogmatism—that too much could never be produced.

This disease had already revealed itself in chronic form at the time of the strike in Preston[57]. Shortly afterwards the glut in the American market led to the outbreak of the crisis in the United States. India and China, though overstocked, as well as California and Australia, continued to form outlet channels for overproduction. As the English manufacturers could no longer sell their commodities in the home market without depressing prices, they resorted to the dangerous expedient of sending their commodities abroad on consignment, particularly to India, China, Australia and California. This makeshift enabled trade to proceed for a while with less disturbance than if the goods had been thrown on the market all at once. But no sooner did these shipments arrive at their destinations, than they determined prices there, and by the end of September the effect was felt here in England.

The crisis then changed its chronic character for an acute one. The first houses to collapse were the cotton printers, among them old established firms in and around Manchester. Then came the turn of the shipowners and the Australia and California merchants, then the Chinese houses, and finally the Indian. All took their turn, most of them suffered heavily, many had to suspend business, and the danger is not over for any of these branches of trade. On the contrary, it is constantly growing. The silk manufacturers were also hit; their industry is at the moment reduced to almost nothing, and the localities where it is carried on are experiencing the greatest distress. Now it will be the turn of the cotton spinners and manufacturers. Some of them have already succumbed and many more will yet have to share their fate. As we have seen earlier[d], the fine-yarn spinners are working only short-time, and the coarse-yarn spinners will soon have to resort to the same remedy. A section of them are already working a few days a week only. How long will they be able to stand it?

A few more months, and the crisis in the factory districts will reach the depth of 1842, if it does not exceed it. But no sooner will its effects be generally felt among the working classes, than the political movement which has more or less been dormant among these classes over the past six years, leaving behind only the cadres for a new agitation, will spring up again. The conflict between the industrial proletariat and the bourgeoisie will flare up again at the same time that the conflict between the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy reaches its climax. Then the mask which has so far hidden the real features of Britain's political physiognomy from foreigners, will drop. Nevertheless, only those unfamiliar with the wealth of this country in human and material resources will doubt that it will emerge victorious and freshly rejuvenated from the impending great crisis.

Written on March 2, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 109, March 6, 1855
Marked with the sign x


[a] Marx uses the English term.—Ed.

[b] "Among all the political changes...", The Times, No. 21979, February 16, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Marx uses the English term.—Ed.

[d] See this volume, p. 23.—Ed.

[53] This version of the article first appeared in English translation in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Articles on Britain, Moscow, 1971. The other version entitled "The Crisis in England" was written by Marx for the New-York Daily Tribune in English. It is reproduced in this volume in its original form.

[54] A reference to the overthrow of the Stuart dynasty and the enthronement, together with his wife Mary, daughter of the deposed Stuart King James II, of William III of Orange, after which constitutional monarchy was consolidated in Britain on the basis of a compromise between the landed aristocracy and the finance bourgeoisie.

[55] The term "millocracy" (mill+the Greek kratia) was first used by Thomas Carlyle in his work Past and Present, published in 1843. Reform Bill of 1831—see Note 45↓.

[56] The 1834 Poor Law (an Act for the amendment and better administration of the laws relating to the poor in England and Wales) permitted only one form of aid to needy able-bodied persons—their enrolment in prison-type workhouses where they were engaged in monotonous and exhausting unproductive labour. The people nicknamed them Bastilles for the Poor. The law aimed at making the poor accept hard working conditions in industry, thus increasing the supply of cheap labour. Repeal of the Corn Laws—see Note 14↓.

[57] A reference to one of the biggest strikes by British workers in the 1850s. In August 1853, the weavers and spinners at the cotton mills of Preston and its environs walked out demanding a 10 per cent increase in wages. They were supported by workers in other trades. In September the Associated Masters retaliated by organising a lockout. About 25,000 of Preston's 30,000 workers stayed away from work. Thanks to the relief given them by workers in other cities, they were able to hold out for more than 36 weeks. In February 1854, the lockout was lifted but the strike continued. To bring it to an end the Associated Masters began importing workers from Ireland and the English workhouses. In March, the leaders of the strike were arrested. As their funds ran out, workers were forced to return to the mills. The strike ended in May.

[14] The Corn Laws, the first of which were passed as early as the fifteenth century, imposed high import duties on agricultural products in order to maintain high prices for these products on the domestic market. The Corn Laws served the interests of the big landowners. The struggle between the industrial bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy over the Corn Laws ended in their repeal in June 1846.

[45] This refers to the Reform Bill, passed by the British House of Commons in 1831 and finally approved by the House of Lords in June 1832. It gave the vote to owners and tenants of houses rated at £ 10 or over. The working class and the petty bourgeoisie—the main force in the struggle for reform—were denied suffrage.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.53-56), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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