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On The Reform Movement[158]

Karl Marx

London, May 21. Today all the London newspapers publish an address from the City reformers, or rather their executive committee, to the "People of England"[a]. The style of the document is dry, businesslike, not quite as lofty as that of the trade circulars that periodically emanate from the same source, offering for sale coffee, tea, sugar, spices and other products of the tropical countries in a more or less tastefully arranged fabric of phrases. The Association[b] promises to provide the material for a veritable physiology of the various government departments and to disclose all the mysteries of Downing Street[c], Downing Street which is full of hereditary wisdom. This is what it promises. For its own part, it demands that the electoral districts of England send to Parliament candidates freely chosen according to their hearts' desire and recommended solely by merit, instead of, as hitherto, imposed on them by the aristocratic clubs. It thus recognises the existing privileged electoral districts as normal, the selfsame districts which, in their corruptibility, their reliance on a few clubs, their lack of independence, it admits to being the birthplace of the present House of Commons, and thus of the present government. It does not want to dissolve these exclusive districts, nor to extend them, but simply to moralise. Why not then appeal directly to the conscience of the oligarchy itself, instead of threatening it with the abolition of its privileges? It should at any rate be an easier job to convert the oligarchical heads than the oligarchical electoral districts. The City Association would obviously like to bring into existence an anti-aristocratic movement, but a movement within the limits of the legal (as Guizot called it), the official England. And how do they intend to rouse the stagnant bog of electoral districts? How to drive them into emancipating themselves from interests and customs which make them the vassals of a few select clubs and the pillars of the governing oligarchy? With a physiology of Downing Street? Not entirely. Also by means of pressure from without, by mass meetings and the like. And how are they going to set the non-official, non-enfranchised masses in motion so as to influence the privileged circle of electoral districts? By inviting them to renounce the People's Charter (which basically contains nothing but the demand for universal suffrage and the conditions under which alone it can become a reality in England), and to acknowledge the privileges of these electoral districts which, by the admission of the City reformers themselves, are in the process of decay. The City Association must be aware of the example of the "financial and parliamentary reformers". It knows that this movement, headed by Hume, Bright, Cobden, Walmsley and Thompson, failed because it sought to replace the People's Charter by the so-called Little Charter[159], because it merely wanted to make concessions to the masses, merely to reach a compromise with them. Do they imagine that without concessions they can achieve what the others could not achieve despite their concessions? Or do they deduce from the Anti-Corn Law movement that it is possible to set the English people in motion for partial reforms? But the object of that movement was very general, very popular, very tangible. The symbol of the Anti-Corn Law League was, as is well known, a big thick loaf of bread in contrast to the diminutive loaf of the Protectionists. A loaf of bread, particularly in the famine year 1846, naturally speaks quite a different popular dialect from a "physiology of Downing Street". We need not recall a well-known booklet, The Physiology of the City[d]. There it is demonstrated with the greatest precision that however well the gentlemen may run their own businesses, in the management of common enterprises, for example the various insurance companies, they more or less faithfully follow the official pattern of Downing Street. Their management of the railways, with the glaring frauds, swindles and total neglect of safety precautions, is so notorious that the question has been raised more than once in the press, in Parliament and outside Parliament whether the railways should not be placed under direct state control and taken out of the hands of the private capitalists! The physiology of Downing Street, then, will accomplish nothing as the English say, "This will not do, sir!"[e]

Written on May 21, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 237, May 24, 1855
Marked with the sign x


[a] Excerpts from this address were later published in The People's Paper, No. 160, May 26, 1855.—Ed.

[b] The Administrative Reform Association (see this volume, pp. 166-69).—Ed.

[c] 10 Downing Street is the British Prime Minister's official residence.—Ed.

[d] The reference is to D. M. Evans' pamphlet The City; or, the Physiology of London Business, published anonymously. Marx quotes a passage from it in Volume III of Capital.—Ed.

[e] Marx uses the English phrase.—Ed.

[158] This article was first published in English under the heading "On the Reform Movement" in Karl Marx, Surveys from Exile, Political Writings, Vol. 2, Harmondsworth, 1973.

[159] A reference to a radical political trend among the Free Traders which in 1849 founded the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association. Its purpose was to agitate for the "Little Charter", a reform bill repeatedly submitted to Parliament by Joseph Hume between 1849 and 1851. In contrast to the People's Charter, it contained three points: voting rights for every tenant of a house or part of a house (Household Suffrage), triennial parliaments, and vote by ballot. By counterposing this programme to the demands of the Chartists while at the same time adopting, in an extremely curtailed form, some of these demands, the bourgeois radicals hoped to gain control of the working masses at a time when the Chartist movement was declining. However, most of the politically active workers, except for the reformist elements in the Chartist movement, including O'Connor's supporters, refused to support the Little Charter. In 1855 the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association disintegrated.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.208-210), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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