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Traditional English Policy[400]

Karl Marx

Concerning the foreign policy of English Whigs a most erroneous impression prevails; it is supposed that they have been ever the sworn foes of Russia. History clearly establishes the contrary. In the diary and correspondence of James Harris, first Earl of Malmesbury—for several years, under both Whig and Tory administrations, English Minister at the Court of St. Petersburg—and in the Memoirs and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, edited by Lord John Russell, we find astounding revelations of Whig policy as inspired and inaugurated by Fox, who is still the political hierophant of the Whigs, being in fact as much revered by them as Mohammed is by the Osmanlis. To understand, therefore, how England has been ever[a] subservient to Russia, we will revert for a moment to facts antecedent to the accession of Fox to the Cabinet.

In the diary of the Earl of Malmesbury we perceive the anxious, impatient haste with which England pressed her diplomacy on Russia during our War of Independence[401]. Her Embassador was instructed to conclude by any means an alliance offensive and defensive. The reply of the Czarina in the first instance was evasive: the very word "offensive" was odious to Catherine; and it was necessary first to wait the course of events. Finally the English diplomat discerned that the obstacle was Russia's desire of English support for her Turkish policy; and Harris advised his Government of the necessity of nourishing the Russian appetite, if her aid against the American Colonies was to be secured.

The following year the proposition of Sir James Harris assumes a milder form; he does not ask for an alliance. A Russian protest to hold France and Spain in check, if backed by a naval armament, will be acceptable to England. The Empress replies that she can perceive no occasion for such a measure. The Embassador, with servile flattery, remonstrates that

"A Russian Sovereign of the seventeenth century [...] might well have spoken so, but since that epoch Russia has become a leading power in Europe, [...] and the concerns of Europe are hers also. [...] If Peter the Great could behold the Russian navy [...] allied to that of England [...] he would confess himself no longer the first of Russian rulers"

—and so on in the same strain.

The Empress accepted this flattery, but rejected the Embassador's proposals. Two months later, on November 5, 1779, King' George wrote to his "lady sister," the Czarina, an autograph letter in old-fashioned French. He no longer insisted on a formal protest, but would be satisfied with a simple demonstration.

"The apparition merely"—such were his royal words—"of a portion of the Imperial fleet will suffice to restore and confirm the peace of Europe, and the league joined against England will at once vanish."

Has ever another power of the first order so abjectly supplicated?

But all this wheedling on the part of England failed of its object, and in 1780 the armed neutrality was proclaimed[402]. England patiently swallowed the pill. To sweeten the dose her Government had previously proclaimed that the merchant-vessels of Russia should not be stopped or hindered by English cruisers. Thus, without compulsion England at that time surrendered the right of search. Soon afterward the English diplomat assured the Cabinet at St. Petersburg that British -vessels of war should not molest the subjects of the Empress in their commercial pursuits; and in 1781 Sir James Harris claimed as a merit for the English Board of Admiralty that it overlooked the frequent case of Russian vessels conveying naval stores to the enemies of England, and that wherever such vessels had been by mistake arrested or hindered, liberal indemnity for the detention had been awarded by the Board. Every inducement was employed by the English Cabinet to detach Russia from the neutrality. Thus, Lord Stormont writes to the Embassador at St. Petersburg:

"Is there no dear object with which to tempt the ambition of the Empress—no concession advantageous to her navy and her commerce, which may move her to help us against our rebellious colonies?"

Harris replies that the cession of Minorca will be such a bait. In 1781 Minorca was proffered to Catherine—but not accepted.

In March, 1782, Fox entered the Cabinet, and immediately the Russian Minister at London[b] was advised that England was ready to treat with Holland, with whom the previous Ministry had declared war on the strength of the treaty of 1674[403]— wherein it was conceded that Free ships make Free goods—and would at once conclude an armistice. Harris is instructed by Fox to represent these advances as an evidence of the deference which the King desires to pay to the wishes and opinions of the Empress. But Fox does not stop here. A Cabinet Council advises the King to make known to the Russian Minister residing near his Court that his Majesty is desirous of sharing the views of the Empress, and of forming the most intimate relations with the Court of St. Petersburg, making the declaration of neutrality the basis of stipulations between the two countries.

Soon after this Fox resigned. His successor, Lord Grantham, certified that the rather favorable disposition of St. Petersburg toward .London was the fruit of Fox's policy; and when Fox reentered the Cabinet, the idea was proclaimed by him that an alliance with the Northern Powers was the policy for an enlightened Englishman, and should continue to be so forever. In one of his letters to Harris he admonishes him to regard the Court of St. Petersburg as the one whose friendship is of the first importance to Great Britain, and avers that the proudest aim of his first brief administration was to make plain to the Empress how sincerely the English Ministry desired to follow her counsels and win her confidence. The partiality of Fox to a Russian alliance was extreme. He advised the King to write to the Empress and invite her to lend her condescending attention to the affairs of England.

In 1791, Fox, being then in the Opposition, said in Parliament[c] that

"it was something new for a British house to hear the growing greatness of Russia presented as matter for anxiety. [...] Twenty years before, England had introduced Russian vessels into the Mediterranean. He (Fox) had advised the King not. to impede the annexation of the Crimea to Russia. England had con-firmed Russia in her scheme to found her own aggrandizement on the ruin of Turkey. It were madness to betray jealousy of Russia's increased power in the Black Sea."

In the course of the same debate, Burke, then a Whig, observed:

"It is something new to consider the Turkish Empire as a part of the European equilibrium;"

and these views were urged in still stronger language, again and again by Burke—who is held by every party in England as the paragon of British statesmen—down to the close of his political life; and they were caught up by the great leader of the Whigs[d], who succeeded in command of that party.

During Lord Grey's administration in 1831 and 1832, he took occasion in a discussion on foreign policy to state his conviction that it would be for the advantage of Turkey herself and the happiness of Europe if that Power were merged in the Russian Empire. Was Russia less barbarous then than she is pictured now? Was she less then that hideous despotism which modern Whigs in such terrible color portray her? And yet not alone was her alliance coveted with fawning servility, but she was encouraged by English liberal statesmen to that very design for which she is now so vehemently denounced.

Written about December 28, 1855
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4597, January 12, 1856
as a leading article


[a] The New-York Daily Tribune has "even".—Ed.

[b] I. M. Simolin.—Ed.

[c] Fox's speech in the House of Commons on March 29, 1791.—Ed.

[d] Fox.—Ed.

[400] This article was reprinted under the same heading in The Eastern Question.

[401] The attitude of the European powers during the American War of Independence (1774-83) was determined by their commercial and colonial rivalry with Britain. France entered the war against Britain in 1778, Spain in 1779, and Holland in 1780. Despite the British Government's attempts to secure the support of Russia, the latter maintained an attitude of benevolent neutrality towards the United States and thereby contributed to the victory of the American republic.

[402] The principle of armed neutrality (the armed protection of the merchantmen of neutral countries trading with Britain's opponents) was proclaimed by Catherine II in 1780 and recognised by a number of states. It stipulated the right of neutral countries to trade with the belligerents, a ban on privateering, refusal to recognise the blockade of ports access to which was not actually prevented by armed force, and a number of other rules. The declaration of armed neutrality objectively favoured the struggle of the North Americans for independence.

[403] Britain declared war on Holland in December 1780 on the pretext that the latter was violating the Westminster peace treaty of 1674, which ended the Anglo-Dutch war of 1672-74. Holland was accused, in particular, of infringing a secret clause under which the two parties undertook not to aid any powers hostile to either side. Britain objected to Holland's trade with France, Spain and the United States of North America, against which Britain was waging war.

In taking this attitude Britain ignored another clause of the treaty, one guaranteeing freedom of trade and navigation.

The Anglo-Dutch war ended in 1784 in a victory for Britain. Holland was forced to cede the port of Negapatam (Southern India) to it and grant it freedom of navigation in the waterways of the Dutch East India Company.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.584-587), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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