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The Crisis in England

Karl Marx

Of course, the most interesting feature of the news from Europe by the Atlantic[59] must be the death of the Czar[a] and the influence of that event on the pending complications. But important as may be the intelligence on this subject, or on other continental affairs, in its interest for the thoughtful observer it can hardly surpass the gradual indications and developments of that momentous political crisis in which, without any will of their own, the British nation are now involved at home. The last attempt to maintain that antiquated compromise called the British Constitution—a compromise between the class that rule officially and the class that rule non-officially—has signally failed. The coalition ministry, the most constitutional of all, has not only broken down in England but the constitution itself has broken down in detail at every point where it has been tested by the war. Forty thousand British soldiers have died on the shores of the Black Sea, victims to the British Constitution. Officers, Staff, Commissariat, Medical Department, Transport Service, Admiralty, Horse Guards, Ordnance, Army and Navy, all and every one have broken down, have ruined themselves in the estimation of the world; but all and every one have failed with the satisfaction of knowing that they had but done their duty in the eyes of the British Constitution. The Lon-don Times spoke more truly than it knew, when it said, with respect to this universal failure, that it was the British Constitution itself which was on its trial[b]!

It has been tried, and found guilty. This British constitution, what is it but a superannuated compromise, by which the general governing power is abandoned to some sections of the middle class, on condition that the whole of the real Government, the Executive in all its details, even to the executive department of the legislative power—or that is the actual law-making in the two Houses of Parliament is secured to the landed aristocracy? This aristocracy which, subject to general principles laid down by the middle class, rules supreme in the Cabinet, the Parliament, the Administration, the Army and the Navy—this very important half of the British constitution has now been obliged to sign its own death-warrant. It has been compelled to confess its incapacity any longer to govern England. Ministry after Ministry is formed, only to dissolve itself after a few weeks' reign. The crisis is permanent; the Government is but provisional. All political action is suspended; nobody professes to do more than to keep the political machine greased well enough to prevent it from stopping. That pride of the constitutional Englishman, the House of Commons itself, is brought to a dead stand. It knows itself no longer, since it is split up in numberless fractions, attempting all the arithmetical combinations and variations, of which a given number of units is capable. It can no longer recognize itself in the various Cabinets, which it makes in its own image, for no other purpose than to unmake them again. The bankruptcy is complete.

And not only has the war had to be carried on in the midst of this national helplessness, which, breaking out like a pestilence in the Crimea, has gradually seized all the branches of the body politic, but there is an opponent to contend with far more dangerous than Russia—an opponent more than a match for all the Gladstones, Cardwells, Russells and Palmerstons of past, present and future Cabinets put together. That opponent is the commercial and industrial crisis which, since September last, has set in with a severity, a universality, and a violence, not to be mistaken. Its stern, iron hand at once shut up the mouths of those shallow Free Traders who for years had gone on preaching, that since the repeal of the Corn Laws glutted markets were impossible. There the glut is, with all its consequences, and in its most acute form; and in view of it nobody is more eager to accuse the improvidence of manufacturers, in not reducing production, than those very economists, who told them only a few months before that they never could produce too much. We long since called attention to the existence of this disease in a chronic form. It has been aggravated, of course, by the late difficulties in America, and the crisis that depressed our trade. India and China, glutted though they were, continued to be used as outlets—as also California and Australia. When the English manufacturers could no longer sell their goods at home, or would not do so rather than depress prices, they resorted to the absurd expedient of consigning them abroad, especially to India, China, Australia and California. This expedient enabled trade to go on for a while with less embarrassment than if the goods had been thrown at once upon the home market; but when they arrived at their destinations they produced embarrassment at once, and about the end of September last the effect began to be felt in England.

Then the crisis exchanged its chronic form for an acute one. The first houses that felt it were the calico printers; a number of them, including very old established houses in Manchester and that vicinity, broke down. Then came the turn of the shipowners and the Australian and Californian merchants; next came the China traders, and finally the Indian houses. All of them have had their turn; most of them losing severely, while many had to suspend; and for none of them has the danger passed away. On the contrary it is still increasing. The silk manufacturers were equally affected; their trade has been reduced to almost nothing, and the localities where it is carried on have suffered, and still suffer, the greatest distress. Then came the turn of the cotton-spinners and manufacturers. Some of them had already succumbed at our last advices, and a great many more must do so. The spinners of fine yarns, as we also learn, had begun to work only four days a week, and the coarse spinners would shortly have to do the same. But how many of them will be able to stand this for any length of time?

A few months more and the crisis will be at a height which it has not reached in England since 1846, perhaps not since 1842. When its effects begin to be fully felt among the working classes, then will that political movement begin again, which has been dormant for six years. Then will the working-men of England rise anew, menacing the middle classes at the very time that the middle classes are finally driving the aristocracy from power. Then will the mask be torn off which has hitherto hid the real political features of Great Britain. Then will the two real contending parties in that country stand face to face—the middle class and the working classes, the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat—and England will at last be compelled to share in the general social evolutions of European society. When England entered into the French Alliance she finally abandoned that isolated character which her insular position had created for her, but which the commerce of the world, and the increasing facilities for inter-course, had long since undermined. Henceforth she can hardly help undergoing the great internal movements of the other European nations.

It is also a striking fact that the last moments of the British Constitution are as prolific in evidences of a corrupt social state as the last moments of Louis Philippe's monarchy. We have before referred to the Parliamentary and Government scandals, to the Stonor, the Sadleir, the Lawley[c] scandals; but, to crown all, came the Handcock and De Burgh revelations, with Lord Clanricarde, a peer of the realm, as a principal though indirect party to a most revolting deed[60]. No wonder that this should seem to complete the parallel, and that people, on reading the damning details, should involuntarily exclaim "The Duc de Praslin! The Duc de Praslin!" England has arrived at her 1847; who knows when and what will be her 1848?

Written on March 2, 1855
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4346, March 24, 1855
Reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1027, March 30, 1855
and the New-York Weekly Tribune, No. 707, March 31, 1855 as a leading article


[a] Nicholas I died on March 2, 1855.—Ed.

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

[c] See the article "The Late British Government" by Marx and Engels (present edition, Vol. 13, pp. 620-26).—Ed.

[59] By altering the beginning of this article the editors of the New-York Daily Tribune gave the impression that it had been written in America. Some other contributions by Marx and Engels published as leading articles in this newspaper were also edited in this way.

[60] A reference to the lawsuit over the inheritance of Eliza Josephine Handcock, the mistress of the Earl of Clanricarde, that took place in the Irish Court of Chancery in January 1855. The action had been brought by John Stratford Handcock, the rightful heir of Josephine's daughter Honoria who died on December 12, 1853. His rights were contested by John de Burgh, son of Josephine and the Earl of Clanricarde. In the course of the proceedings public attention was drawn to the mysterious circumstances attending the death of Josephine's husband, William Handcock, and of their three daughters, none of whom had come of age. Some witnesses hinted that the Earl of Clanricarde was implicated in these events.

Marx draws a parallel between this case and that of Altarice-Rosalba-Fanny, the Duchess of Praslin, who was found murdered in her home in August 1847. Suspicion fell on her husband, the Duke of Praslin, who was arrested and poisoned himself during the investigation.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.59-63), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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