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On The History of Political Agitation

Karl Marx

London, May 7. In times of major political agitation in England the City of London has never been able to put itself in the vanguard. Up to now the fact that it joined a campaign merely indicated that the purpose of the agitation had been achieved and become a fait accompli. So it was with the Reform Movement, in which Birmingham took the initiative. So it was with the Anti-Corn Law Movement, which was led from Manchester. The Bank Restriction Act of 1797[138] was an exception. The meetings of the bankers and merchants of the City of London made it easier for Pitt at that time to prohibit the Bank of England from continuing cash-payments—after the directors of the Bank had informed him a few weeks earlier that the Bank was tottering on the brink of bankruptcy and could only be saved by a coup d'état, by a fixed rate of exchange for bank-notes. Circumstances at the time required just as much resignation on the part of the Bank of England to letting itself be prohibited from making cash-payments, as on the part of the city merchants, whose credit stood or fell with the Bank, to supporting Pitt's prohibition and recommending it to the country man[*]. The salvation of the Bank of England was the salvation of the City. Hence their "patriotic" meetings and their "agitational" initiative. The initiative taken by the City at present with the meetings held last Saturday[b] in the London Tavern and the Guildhall, and the founding of an "Association for Administrative Reform"[139], has the merit of novelty, the merit, rare in England, of having no precedent. Moreover, there was no eating or drinking at these meetings, which is also a new feature in the annals of the City, whose "turtle-soup patriotism" has been immortalised by Cobbett. Finally another novelty was the fact that the meetings of the City merchants in the London Tavern and the Guildhall were held in business hours, in broad daylight. The current stagnation in business may have something to do with this phenomenon, as indeed it may altogether form a leaven in the fermentation of the City mind, and a considerable leaven too. For all that, the importance of this City movement cannot be denied, however hard the West End may try to laugh it off. The bourgeois reform papers—The Daily News, The Morning Advertiser, and The Morning Chronicle (the last having belonged to this category for some time now)—seek to demonstrate to their adversaries the "great future" of the City Association. They overlook the more obvious aspects. They have failed to realise that very vital, very decisive points have already been decided by the mere fact of these meetings: 1. The breach between the ruling class outside Parliament and the governing class within it; 2. a dislocation of those elements of the bourgeoisie that have hitherto set the tone in politics; 3. the disenchantment with Palmerston.

As we know, Layard has announced that he intends to table his reform proposals in the House of Commons tonight. As we know, about a week ago he was shouted down, hissed and booed in the House of Commons. The princes of the English merchant world in the City replied at their meetings with frantic cheers for Layard. He was the hero of the day at the London Tavern and the Guildhall. The cheers of the City are a provocative retort to the groans[c] of the Commons. If the House of Commons proves tonight to have been intimidated, its authority is lost, it abdicates. If it repeats its groans, the cheers of its opponents will resound all the more loudly. And from the tale of the Abderiten[d] we know to what happenings the rivalry between cheers and groans may lead[140]. The City meetings were a blatant challenge to the House of Commons, similar to Westminster's election of Sir Francis Burdett in the first decade of this century.[141]

Until now, of course, the Manchester School with its Brights and Cobdens has stood at the head of the movement of the English bourgeoisie. The manufacturers of Manchester have now been ousted by the merchants of the City. Their orthodox opposition to the war convinced the bourgeoisie, which in England can never remain static for a moment, that they have at least temporarily lost their vocation to lead it. At present the Manchester gentry can only maintain their "hegemony" by outbidding the City gentle-men. This rivalry between the two most important factions of the bourgeoisie actually demonstrated by the City meetings, from which the Brights and Cobdens were excluded and from which they excluded themselves, augurs well for the popular movement. In evidence of this we can already cite the fact that the secretary of the City committee[e] has addressed a letter to the Chartists in London requesting them to appoint a member to its standing committee. Ernest Jones has been delegated by the Chartists to this committee. The merchants do not, of course, stand in such direct opposition to the workers as do the manufacturers, the millocracy[f], and thus they are able, at least initially, to take joint action, which the Chartists and the Manchester men could not do.

Palmerston—this is the last major fact emerging from the City meetings—has, for the first time, been booed and hissed by the most important constituency in the country. The magic of his name has been dispelled forever. What brought him into discredit in the City was not his Russian policy, which is older than the Thirty Years' War[142]. It was the careless disdain, the pretentious cynicism, and above all the "bad jokes" with which he affected to cure the most terrible crisis England has ever known. This outraged the bourgeois conscience, however well it may go down in the corrupt House of "Commons".[g]

Administrative reform with a Parliament such as now constituted: everyone recognises the illogical nature of these pious wishes at first glance. But our century has seen reforming popes[143]. We have seen reform banquets headed by Odilon Barrot[144]. No wonder, then, that the avalanche that will sweep away Olde England appears at the outset as a snowball in the hand of the reforming City merchants.

Written on May 7, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 215, May 10, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[*] It is incredible that even in the most recent histories of political economy the conduct of the City at that time is cited as evidence of English patriotism. It is even more incredible that in his work on Russia (3rd vol., 1852) Herr von Haxthausen is gullible enough to maintain that by suspending the cash-payments of the Bank, Pitt was preventing the money from going abroad[a]. What may a man who is so credulous have swallowed in Russia? And what indeed are we to think of the Berlin criticism who believe implicitly in Herr von Haxthausen, and by way of proof plagiarize him?—Marx.

[a] A. Haxthausen, Studien über die innern Zustände, das Volksleben und insbesondere die ländlichen Einrichtungen Russlands, Dritter Theil.—Ed.

[b] May 5, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Here and below Marx uses the English words "cheers" and "groans".—Ed.

[d] Ch. M. Wieland, Die Abderiten, eine sehr wahrscheinliche Geschichte.—Ed.

[e] J. Acland. His letter to the Chartists mentioned below and their reply to it are quoted in the article "London Organisation Committee" published in The People's Paper, No. 157, May 5, 1855.—Ed.

[f] Marx uses the English term. For its meaning see Note 55↓.—Ed.

[g] A pun in the original: Haus der Gemeinen can mean both "House of Commons" and "House of base, or vulgar fellows".—Ed.

[138] The Reform Movement— Emancipation of the Catholics—in 1829 the British Parliament, under pressure of a mass movement in Ireland, lifted some of the restrictions curtailing the political rights of the Catholic population. Catholics were granted the right to be elected to Parliament and hold certain government posts. Simultaneously the property qualification for electors was increased fivefold. With the aid of this manoeuvre the British ruling classes hoped to win over to their side the upper

The Anti-Corn Law movement— 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.

The Bank Restriction Act, passed in 1797, introduced a compulsory rate for notes and abolished their convertibility into gold. These measures were re-introduced virtually in full in 1821 on the basis of an Act passed in 1819.

[139] The Association for Administrative Reform was set up in London in May 1855 on the initiative of liberal circles in the City. Taking advantage of the outcry caused in the country by press reports and the findings of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the plight of the British army in the Crimea, the Association hoped by means of mass rallies to bring pressure to bear on Parliament and win broader access for members of the commercial and finance bourgeoisie to government posts, monopolised by the aristocracy. In their campaign the Association's leaders sought to obtain the support of the Chartists. However, at rallies organised by the Association and at their own rallies the Chartists refused to back the moderate bourgeois demands for administrative reform and instead urged a Parliamentary reform based on the People's Charter (see Note 46↓). The administrative reform campaign was a failure, and the Association soon ceased to exist. In his subsequent reports Marx frequently touched on the Association's activities and relations with the Chartists.

[140] In Christoph Martin Wieland's Die Abderiten, eine sehr wahrscheinliche Geschichte a trifling dispute causes the population of the ancient Thracian city of Abdera to divide into two parties, the struggle between which nearly leads to the city's destruction. The first edition of the novel appeared in Weimar in 1774, the second, enlarged one, in 1781.

[141] In the 1806 general election the Radical James Paull, a friend of William Cobbett's, was put forward as a candidate for Westminster. However, the authorities refused to endorse his nomination because of his denunciations of the Viceroy of India, Richard Wellesley. The Westminster electorate retaliated by returning to Parliament another Radical, Francis Burdett, who had actively defended Paull.

[142] The Thirty Years' War (1618-48)—a war in which the Pope, the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and the Catholic German princes fought against the Protestant countries: Bohemia, Denmark, Sweden, the Republic of the Netherlands and a number of German states. The rulers of Catholic France—rivals of the Habsburgs—supported the Protestants. Germany was the main arena of this struggle, the object of pillage and territorial claims. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) sealed her political dismemberment.

[143] Marx is referring to Pius IX, who between 1846 and early 1848 introduced a number of moderate liberal reforms in the Papal States in the interests of the nobility and the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie. In this way he sought to counteract the mounting revolutionary movement in Italy.

[144] A group of French deputies (called the Dynastic Opposition) headed by Odilon Barrot took part in the campaign of banquets for electoral reform conducted by the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois opposition in France on the eve of the February 1848 revolution. The group had joined the movement in an attempt to render it innocuous to the July monarchy. The Dynastic Opposition favoured moderate electoral reform as a means of preventing revolution and preserving the Orleans dynasty.

[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—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.

[46] The People's Charter, which contained the demands of the Chartists, was published in the form of a Parliamentary Bill on May 8, 1838. It contained six points: universal suffrage (for men of 21 and over), annual parliaments, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualification of MPs and payment of MPs. Petitions urging the adoption of the People's Charter were turned down by Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.166-169), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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