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A Critique of Palmerston's Latest Speech

Karl Marx

London, June 1. If Gladstone deceives by his air of profundity, Palmerston deceives by his air of superficiality. He knows how to conceal his real intention with true artistry beneath loosely connected phrases meant for effect and commonplace concessions to the opinion of the day. His Cabinet speech has now lain before the public for a week[a]. The daily and weekly press has ventilated, scrutinised and criticised it. His enemies say that after keeping to the language of old Aberdeen for many months he has now found it appropriate to speak the language of old Palmerston again for an evening. They say: the noble lord is witness for himself, but who will be witness for the noble lord[b]? They regard his speech as a clever feat since he manages to avoid giving any definite account of his policies, and adopts such an elastic, airy form that it is impossible to pin him down anywhere. His friends, on the other hand, do not hesitate to hail the wind he expended on his rhetorical organ-playing as the music itself. From the beginning he correctly grasped the situation in which he had to present himself to the House and to the country. Who confronts me?

"...There are those who think, on the one hand, that we have not been sufficiently vigorous in the prosecution of the war while there are those who wish, on the other hand, to drive the country to a peace upon ignominious terms; on the one hand, there are those who reproach us for having opened negotiations with Austria that are pointless and only paralyse the war, but, on the other, those who think that we have not gone far enough in these negotiations and have wrecked them by making extravagant demands."

Thus he took up the stance of a man of the true centre. He repulsed the attacks of the war men by referring them to the peace men and the attacks of the peace men by referring them back to the war men. The about-turn against the committed peace men then gave him the opportunity to indulge in well-calculated outbursts of patriotic fervour, loud protestation of energy and all the brave words which he has so often used to bamboozle the ninnies. He flattered national pride by listing the great resources that England has at its disposal—his sole reply to the accusation that he is incapable of handling large resources.

"The noble lord," said Disraeli, "reminds me [...] of that parvenu who used to recommend himself to his mistress's good graces by enumerating his possessions. 'I have a house in the country, a house in town, a gallery of pictures, a fine cellar of wines.'"

Thus England has a Baltic fleet and a fleet in the Black Sea, and an annual national income of £80 million, etc. However, among all the rhetorical trivialities in which Palmerston's speech petered out, .he succeeded in throwing in one definite statement, to which he can return later at a suitable opportunity and which he can proclaim as the principle of his policy, sanctioned by the House. No English newspaper has emphasised it, but the art of Palmerstonian oratory has always consisted of concealing its own point and sweeping it away from the memory of his listeners in the smooth, shallow flow of his phraseology. But as it is not simply a question of momentary success for Palmerston, as it is for Russell, because he plans ahead, he does not merely content himself with the oratorical expedients of the moment but carefully lays the foundation for his subsequent operations. The statement mentioned above says literally:

"We are engaged in a great operation in the Black Sea. We trust and hope that we shall be successful in that operation. We think success in that operation will lead to the obtaining those conditions which [...] we have thought, in the present state of the conflict, Britain, France and Austria have a right to demand."

In other words, however protracted the operations in the Black Sea may be, the diplomatic basis of the war remains the same. However great the military success may be, final success is determined in advance, and limited to what are called the Four Points[178]. And Palmerston makes this declaration when only a few hours earlier Layard had stripped the Four Points of their Russophile mask. But Palmerston diverted attention from Layard's criticism, he avoided dealing with the real question, the value of the ostensible aims and objectives of the war, by defending the second half of the 3rd point[c] against Gladstone and advancing this half of the point as the entire thing.

Palmerston's speech was interrupted by an incident that is worthy of mention. An English bigot by the name of Lord Robert Grosvenor preached a penitential sermon at him because he had discussed military successes and the chances of war without taking into account the grace and favour of the Almighty, without even "mentioning the name of God". So he called down divine judgment on his nation. Palmerston immediately did penance, beating his breast and proving that if necessary he, too, can preach and roll his eyes just as well as Lord Robert Grosvenor. But the parliamentary episode received a popular sequel. The citizens of Marylebone (a part of London) had called a large meeting in the School Room, Cowper Street, to protest against the "Bill for the Suppression of Trade on Sundays". As their constituents were involved here, Lord Ebrington and Lord Robert Grosvenor appeared to defend the Bill, which they themselves had tabled in Parliament. Instead of relying on the protection and grace of God, however, they had taken pains to place a dozen paid clappers and trouble-makers at various spots in the meeting. The secret was soon discovered, and the hired agents of bigotry were immediately seized by the good citizens and thrown out into the street. Incapable of facing the hissing, booing and whistling that now broke out, the "noble lords" resumed their seats in a state of embarrassment. As soon as they left the meeting, an "unpaid" mob followed their carriage with unmistakable manifestations of sinful scorn and hardness of heart.

Written on June 1, 1855
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 253, June 4, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Printed according to the news-paper
Published in English for the first time in MECW.


[a] A report on Palmerston's, Disraeli's, and Layard's speeches in the House of Commons on May 25, 1855 was published in The Times, No. 22064, May 26, 1855.—Ed.

[b] A quotation from Disraeli's speech in the House of Commons on May 24, 1855 (see this volume, p. 230).—Ed.

[c] See this volume, pp. 232-33.—Ed.

[178] The Four Points—demands made by the Western Powers on Russia as preliminary conditions for peace talks in their Note of August 8, 1854. Russia was required to renounce her protectorate over Moldavia, Wallachia and Serbia, which was to be replaced by an all-European guarantee; to grant freedom of navigation on the Danube; to agree to a revision of the London Convention of 1841 on the closure of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles to the warships of all nations in peacetime, and to renounce its protection of Christians in Turkey. The Tsarist government at first rejected the Four Points but in November 1854 was forced to accept them as the basis for future peace talks. The Four Points were discussed at the Vienna conferences of Ambassadors (see Note 34↓) but the attempts of the Western Powers to link the question of the Straits with demands for 'a reduction of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea caused the Russian Ambassador in Vienna, A. M. Gorchakov, to walk out of the talks.

[34] A reference to the talks between the British, French and Russian Ambassadors and Austrian Foreign Minister Buol sponsored by Emperor Francis Joseph, which opened in December 1854. Their official purpose was to work out a basis for peace negotiations between the belligerents in the Crimean War. They were a sequel to an earlier round of talks between diplomats of the Western Powers, the Prussian Ambassador and the Austrian Minister (the Russian Ambassador refused to participate) held in Vienna in 1853-54 by way of mediation in the Russo-Turkish conflict. The second round failed to resolve the differences between the belligerents in the Crimean War. In mid-March 1855 representatives of Austria, Britain, France, Turkey and Russia met at a higher level at the Vienna Conference (Britain was represented by Special Envoy Lord John Russell, France by Foreign Minister Drouyn de Lhuys). That conference also produced no results (see Note 88↓).

[88] The Vienna Conference was to work out the terms for peace between the participants in the Crimean War. It was attended by Russia, Britain, France, Austria and Turkey and lasted, with intervals, from March 15 to June 4, 1855. The negotiations centred on the Four Points. While agreeing, with certain reservations, to Points 1, 2 and 4, Russia emphatically rejected Point 3 which, as interpreted by the Western Powers, called for a reduction of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea. Britain and France insisted on its acceptance and turned down Austria's compromise proposal that Russia and Turkey should be allowed to agree between themselves on the size of their naval forces in the Black Sea. The Conference ended without adopting any decisions.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.237-239), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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