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Parliamentary Reform.—
The Break-off and Continuation of The Vienna Conference.—
The So-called War of Annihilation

Karl Marx

London, May 26. Further details have become known regarding the Comité du Salut Ministériel[a] called by Lord Palmerston the day before yesterday before the opening of the House of Commons, characteristic of the parliamentary mechanism and the position of the various factions which have provided the Ministry with a majority of 100 votes. Right at the outset Palmerston threatened resignation if Disraeli's motion[167] were carried. He threatened the prospect of a Tory Ministry[b]. The so-called radical parliamentarians, poor fellows[c], have enjoyed the privilege of having this great and ultimate threat suspended over them since 1830, whenever they break out in mutiny. It never fails to recall them to a sense of discipline. And why? Because they fear the mass movement that is inevitable under a Tory Ministry. How literally correct this view is may be gathered from the confession of a radical who is himself a minister at the moment, if only Minister responsible for the Crown Forests, Sir William Molesworth. This job is well suited for a man who has all along possessed the talent of not being able to see the wood for the trees. M.P. for Southwark, a part of London, he received an invitation from his constituents to attend a public meeting for Southwark held last Wednesday[d]. (N.B. At this meeting, as at the majority of those hitherto held in the provinces, a resolution was passed that administrative reform without prior parliamentary reform is sham and humbug[e]. Molesworth did not appear but sent a letter and in this letter the radical and Cabinet minister declared: "If Mr. Disraeli's motion is carried the need for administrative reform will become more evident." Which "evidently" means: If the Tories take over the government the reform movement will become serious. The threat of resignation, though, was not the biggest gun that Palmerston fired off. He alluded to the dissolution of Parliament and to the fate of the many unfortunates who scarcely three years ago had bought their way into the "honourable House" at tremendous sacrifice. This argument was irresistible. It was no longer just a question of his resignation. It was a question of their resignation.

Although Palmerston thus secured a majority of 100 votes against Disraeli's motion, by threatening some with his resignation, and others with their ejection from the House of Commons, presenting some with the prospect of peace and others with the prospect of war—the newly founded coalition immediately collapsed again, this happening during the public performance of the agreed farce. The statements which the ministers were induced to make during the debate neutralised the statements they had made en petit comité[f] The mortar which loosely held together the reluctant groupings crumbled away, not in a hurricane but in the parliamentary wind. For in yesterday's sitting Roebuck put a question to the Prime Minister about the rumoured re-opening of the Vienna Conferences. He demanded to know whether the British ambassador in Vienna[g] was instructed to take part in these conferences. Ever since the return of Russell, that hapless diplomat, from Vienna, Palmerston, as is common knowledge, had rejected all debates on war or diplomacy on the pretext of not jeopardising the "admittedly interrupted but by no means concluded Vienna Conferences". Milner Gibson had withdrawn or postponed his motion[168] last Monday[h] because according to a statement by the noble Lord "the conferences were still pending". On that occasion Palmerston had expressly emphasised that the British government was leaving it to Austria, "our ally within certain limits", to devise new starting-points for peace negotiations. The continued existence of the Vienna Conference was, he said, beyond all doubt. Though Russell had left Vienna, Westmorland was continuing to reside in Vienna, where; moreover, the plenipotentiaries of all the great powers were engaged in consultations; in other words, all the elements of a permanent conference were present.[i]

Since Monday, the day Palmerston favoured Parliament with these revelations, a major change had occurred in the situation. Disraeli's motion and a day spent debating it[j] separated the Palmerston of Monday from the Palmerston of Friday, and Disraeli had motivated his motion with the misgiving that the government might "drift into a shameful peace" during the recess, just as it had "drifted" into a shameful war under Aberdeen's auspices. Thus the outcome of the vote hung on Palmerston's answer to Roebuck's question. This time he could not call up the ghost of the Vienna Conference and inform the House that in Vienna they were deciding, while in the Halls of St. Stephen's[k] they were debating: that here they were proposing but there they were disposing. This was all the more impossible as only the previous evening Russell had disowned Austria and the peace projects and the Vienna Conference. Accordingly he replied to Roebuck: the Vienna Conference had not been resumed, and the British envoy had no permission to attend a new conference without special instructions from Downing Street. Then Milner Gibson got up in a state of moral indignation. A few days ago, he said, the noble Lord had declared that the Conference was merely suspended, and that Westmorland possessed absolute authority to negotiate at it. Had he been deprived of this authority, if so, when?—Authority! replied Palmerston, his authority is as complete as ever, but he has not the power to use it. To possess authority and to be permitted to use it are two different things. This answer to Roebuck's question broke the ties between the Ministry and the peace-at-any-price party augmented by the Peelites. But this was neither the only nor the most important "misunderstanding". The day before yesterday Russell was stretched on the rack by Disraeli and tortured and pricked with red-hot pins for hours. With one hand Disraeli displayed the rhetorical lionskin in which the Whig Aztec likes to parade; with the other, the diminutive gutta-percha manikin hiding beneath the skin. Although Russell is armed against harsh words by his long parliamentary experience and adventures like the invulnerable Siegfried against wounds, he was unable to remain composed in the face of this ruthless, naked exposure of his true self. He pulled faces while Disraeli spoke. He twisted and turned in his seat uneasily and incessantly while Gladstone followed with his sermon. When Gladstone made a rhetorical pause Russell got up and was only reminded by the laughter of the House that his turn had not yet come. At last Gladstone fell silent for good. At last Russell could unburden his oppressed heart. He now told the House everything that he had wisely concealed from Prince Gorchakov and Herr von Titov. Russia, whose "honour and dignity" he supported at the Vienna Conference, now seemed to him to be a power unscrupulously striving for mastery of the world, making treaties as pretexts for wars of conquest, making wars so as to spread poison with treaties. Not only England but all Europe seemed to him to be threatened, nothing short of a war of annihilation would do. He alluded to Poland too. In short, the Vienna diplomat was suddenly transformed into a "street demagogue" (one of his favourite expressions). In a cunningly calculating way Disraeli had launched him into this odic style.

But immediately after the division Sir James Graham, the Peelite, rose to speak[l]. Was he to believe his ears? Russell had declared a "new war" on Russia, a crusade, a war to the death, a war of the nationalities. The matter was too serious for the debate to be concluded now. The House was even more in the dark about the intentions of the ministers than before. Russell thought that after the vote he could cast off the lionskin in his usual way. He therefore did not beat about the bush. Graham had "misunderstood" him. He only sought "security for Turkey". There you are! cried Disraeli, you who have acquitted the Ministry of the charge of "ambiguous language" by rejecting my motion, you now hear how honest he is! This Russell retracts after the vote the whole of the speech that he made before the vote! I congratulate you on your voting!

The House could not resist this demonstratio ad oculos[m]; the debate was adjourned until after the Whitsun recess; the victory won by the Ministry had been lost again in a moment. The comedy was only supposed to consist of two acts, and to end with the division. Now it has had an epilogue added to it that threatens to be more serious than the grand historical drama. In the meanwhile the parliamentary recess will enable us to analyse the first two acts more closely. It remains unprecedented in the annals of Parliament that the debate should only start in earnest after the vote. Hitherto, parliamentary battles have usually ended with the vote just as romantic novels end with the wedding.

Written on May 26, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 245, May 30, 1855
Marked with the sign x


[a] Committee of Ministerial Safety. (See this volume, p. 218).—Ed.

[b] In his speech in the House of Commons on May 25, 1855, a report on which was published in The Times, No. 22064, May 26, 1855.—Ed.

[c] Marx uses the English words "poor fellows".—Ed.

[d] May 23, 1855.—Ed.

[e] Marx uses the English words "sham" and "humbug".—Ed.

[f] In a small circle.—Ed.

[g] J.F.Westmorland.—Ed.

[h] May 21, 1855.—Ed.

[i] Palmerston's speech in the House of Commons on May 21, 1855. The Times, No. 22060, May 22, 1855.—Ed.

[j] May 24, 1855. Below Marx quotes a passage from Disraeli's speech and mentions the speeches of Gladstone and Russell at that sitting. The Times, No. 22063, May 25, 1855.—Ed.

[k] The House of Commons met in St. Stephen's Chapel, Westminster Palace, since 1547.—Ed.

[l] Graham's speech in the House of Commons on May 25, 1855.—Ed.

[m] Visual proof.—Ed.

[167] A reference to Disraeli's statement in the House of Commons on May 22, 1855, that he would shortly submit for discussion a draft message to the Queen censuring the Palmerston government's vacillating policy on the issue of war and peace. A motion to this effect was in fact tabled on May 24 and evoked a lively debate in Parliament. Marx described this debate in a number of his articles (see this volume, pp. 227-36, 245-48 and 257-59).

[168] On May 11, 1855, T. M. Gibson stated in the House of Commons that he was going to submit for discussion a draft message to the Queen expressing the desire for a successful conclusion of the Vienna Conference and for an honourable peace.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.222-226), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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