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The English Election

Karl Marx

London, March 20, 1857

The coming historian who is to write the history of Europe from 1848 to 1858, will be struck by the similarity of the appeal made to France by Bonaparte in 1851[291] and the appeal to the United Kingdom made by Palmerston in 1857. Both pretended to appeal from Parliament to the nation, from treacherous party coalition to the unsophisticated public mind. Both set forth analogous pleas. If Bonaparte was to save France from a social, Palmerston is to save England from an international crisis. Palmerston, like Bonaparte, is to vindicate the necessity of a strong executive against the empty talk and the intermeddling importunity of the legislative power. Bonaparte addressed himself at once to the conservatives and the revolutionists; to the former as the enemy of the aristocrats, to the latter as the enemy of middle-class usurpation. Palmerston, has he not insulted every despotic Government? Can he be obnoxious to any liberal? On the other hand, has he not betrayed every revolution? Must he not be the chosen of the conservatives? He opposed every reform, and the conservatives should not stand by him! He keeps the Tories out of office, and the liberal place-hunters should desert him! Bonaparte bears a name terrible to the foreigner, and identical with French glory. And does not Palmerston do the same with respect to the United Kingdom? At least, save some slight interruptions, he has kept the Foreign Office since 1830, since the days of reformed England[292], and, therefore, since the beginning of its modern history. Consequently, the international existence of England, however "terrible" or "glorious" it may happen to appear to foreign eyes, centers in the person of Lord Palmerston. Bonaparte by one stroke set at naught all the official great men of France, and does Palmerston not "kick into atoms" the Russells, the Grahams, the Gladstones, the Roebucks, the Cobdens, the Disraelis, and tutti quanti[a]? Bonaparte stood on no principle, he had no impediment, but he promised to give the country what it wanted, a man. And so does Palmerston. He is a man. His worst enemies date not accuse him of being a principle.

The regime of the Assemblée Législative—was it not the regime of a coalition composed of Legitimists[293] and Orleanists[294], with a sprinkling of bourgeois Republicans? Their very coalition proved the dissolution of the parties they represented, while the old party traditions did not allow them to merge in any but a negative unity. Such a negative unity is unfit for action; its acts can only be negative; it can only stop the way; hence the power of Bonaparte. Is the case not the same with Palmerston? The Parliament that has sat since 1852, was it not a coalition Parliament? and was it, therefore, from the outset, not incarnated in a coalition Cabinet? The Assemblée Nationale, when it was forcibly shut up by Bonaparte, ceased to possess a working majority. So did the House of Commons when Palmerston proclaimed its final dissolution. But here the simile ends. Bonaparte made his coup d'état before he appealed to the nation. Restrained by constitutional fetters, Palmerston must appeal to the nation before he attempts a coup d'état. In this respect it cannot be denied all the odds are on the side of Bonaparte. The massacres of Paris, the dragonnades in the provinces, the general state of siege, the proscriptions and deportations en masse, the bayonet placed behind and the cannon placed before the electoral urn, gave to the argumentations of the Bonapartist press (the only one not swept away by the December deluge) a sinister eloquence which its shallow sophistry, its abominable logic, and its nauseous floridness of adulation, were unable to deprive of persuasive force. Palmerston's case, on the contrary, grows the weaker the more his myrmidons inflate their lungs. Great diplomatist as he is, he has forgotten to bid his slaves be aware of the prescript of the lame who liked to lead the blind, to impress upon them Talleyrand's "pas de zèle"[b]. And indeed, they have overdone their part. Take, for instance, the following dithyrambic uttered by a metropolitan organ:

"Palmerston for ever! is a cry which we hope to hear resounded from every hustings. ... The most devoted allegiance to Lord Palmerston is the first tenet to be insisted upon in the profession of faith of every candidate... It is indispensable that liberal candidates will be compelled to admit that Lord Palmerston as Premier is a political necessity of the hour. It is requisite that he should be recognized as the man of the time, not only as the coming man, but as the man that has come; not only as the man for the crisis, but as the man and the only living man for those conjunctures which are evidently impending upon our country... He is the idol of the hour, the pet of the people, the ascending as well as the risen sun."

No wonder that John Bull should prove reluctant to stand this, and that a reaction against the Palmerstonian fever should have set in.

Palmerston's person being proclaimed a policy, no wonder that his adversaries have made it a policy to sift his person. Indeed, we find that Palmerston, as if by magic, has worked the revival from the dead of all the fallen grandeurs of Parliamentary England. In proof of this assertion, the spectacle of Lord John Russell's (the Whig's) appearance before the metropolitan electors assembled at the London Tavern[c]; the exhibition made by Sir James Graham, the Peelite, before his Carlisle constituency[d]; and lastly, the performance of Richard Cobden, the representative of the Manchester school[295], before the crowded meeting in the Free-Trade Hall at Manchester[e]. Palmerston has not acted like Hercules. He has not killed a giant by lifting him up to the air[f], but he has reinvigorated dwarfs by throwing them back upon the earth. If any man had sunk in public estimation, it was certainly Lord John Russell, the father of all legislative abortions, the hero of expediency, the negotiator of Vienna[296], the man in whose hand everything fatally dwindled to nothingness. Now look at his triumphal appearance before the London electors. Whence this change? It resulted simply from the circumstances in which Palmerston had put him. I, he said, am the father of the Test and Corporation act, of the Parliamentary Reform bill, of the municipal corporation reform, of the tithes-question's settlement, of some liberal acts with respect to the Dissenters[297], of others with respect to Ireland. In one word, I engross the substance of whatever was progressive in Whig policy. Are you to sacrifice me to a man who represents Whigism minus its popular elements, who represents Whigism not as a political party, but only as a place-hunting faction? And then he turned his very shortcomings to his advantage. I have always been an adversary of the ballot. Do you expect me now, because I am proscribed by Palmerston, to degrade myself by recanting my convictions and by pledging myself to radical reforms? No, shouted his auditory. Lord John ought at this moment not to be pledged to the ballot. It is greatness in the little man to confess himself, under present circumstances, a hit-by-bit reformer. Three cheers, and one more for John Russell without the ballot! And then he gave the last turn to the scale, by asking his audience whether they would allow a small coterie of opium dealers, at the bidding of Palmerston, to constitute themselves into an electioneering body to impose their government-hatched conclusions on the free electors of the metropolis, and to proscribe himself, Lord John Russell, their friend of 16 years' standing, at the bidding of Palmerston! No, no, shouted the auditory—down with the coterie! Long life to Lord John Russell! And he is now likely not only to be returned, but to head the poll in London.

The case of Sir James Graham was still more curious. If Lord John Russell had become ridiculous, Graham had become contemptible. But, said he to his Carlisle constituents, shall I be snuffed out like a candle that is burned down to the socket, or shall I slink away like a dog hunted off a race-course, because, once in my life, I acted conscientiously, and risked rather my political position than stoop to the dictation of a man? You have returned me as your representative in spite of all my infamies. Are you to dismiss me for one single good action I have committed? Certainly not, re-echoed the Carlisle electors.

In contradistinction to Russell and Graham, Mr. Cobden had, at Manchester, not to confront his own electors, but the electors of Bright and Gibson. He spoke not for himself, but for the Manchester School. His position waxed from this circumstance. The Palmerstonian cry at Manchester was more factitious than at any other place. The interests of the industrial capitalists differ essentially from those of the opium-smuggling merchants of London and Liverpool. The opposition raised at Manchester against Bright and Gibson was not founded upon the material interests of the community, while the cry raised for Palmerston was antagonistic to all its traditions. It proceeded from two sources—from the high-priced press, endeavoring to revenge itself for the abolition of the newspaper stamp and the reduction of the advertisement duty[298], and from that portion of rich and snobbish manufacturers who, jealous of the political eminency of Bright, try at playing the bourgeois gentilhommes[g], and think that it would be fashionable and bon ton to rally under the aristocratic banner of Palmerston rather than under the sober programme of Bright. This peculiar character of the Palmerstonian coterie at Manchester enabled Cobden, for the first time since the Anti-Corn-Law-League agitation[299], to take up again the position of a plebeian leader and to summon again the laboring classes to his banners. Masterly he improved that circumstance. The high ground he took up in his attack upon Palmerston may be judged from the following extract:

"Well, now there is a great question involved in this, which. I think the people of this country ought to take very much to heart. Do you want the members of the House of Commons to look after your interests, and watch the expenditure—[yes, yes]—and to guard you from getting into needless and expensive wars? [Yes.] Well, but you are not going the right way to work, if what I learn in your newspapers is going to be verified in the course of the election, for I am told that those members who joined in that vigilant care of your interests, and voted according to the evidence before us on the question of that war are all to be ostracised—sent into private life—and that you are going to send up other men—[no, no]—to do what? to look after your interests? No, to go and do the humble dirty work of the minister of the hour [Loud cheers]. In fact, that you are going to constitute Lord Palmerston the despotic ruler of this country [No, no]. Well, but if he is not checked by Parliament—if the moment Parliament does check him he dissolves Parliament, and instead of sending up men who are independent enough to assert their and your rights, you send up mere creatures of his will, what is that but investing him with the powers of a despot? Ay, and ,let me tell you that it is a despotism of the clumsiest, most expensive kind, and at the same time the most irresponsible on the face of the earth; because you surround the minister with the sham appearance of a representative form of government; you cannot get at him while he has got a Parliament beneath whose shield he can shelter himself; and if you don't do your duty in your elections in sending men up to the House of Commons who will vigilantly watch the minister of the day, then, I say, you are in a worse plight because governed in a more irresponsible way than if under the King of Prussia or the Emperor of the French [Loud cheers]."[h]

It will now be understood why Palmerston hurries on the elections. He can only vanquish by surprise, and time baffles surprise.

Written on March 20, 1857
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4980, April 6, 1857


[a] All the rest.—Ed.

[b] No zeal.—Ed.

[c] J. Russell's speech before the electors assembled at the London Tavern on March 19, 1857, The Times, No. 22633, March 20, 1857.—Ed.

[d] J. Graham's speech before the Carlisle constituents on March 16, 1857, The Times, No. 22632, March 19, 1857.—Ed.

[e] R. Cobden's speech before the Manchester constituents on March 18, 1857, The Times, No. 22633, March 20, 1857.—Ed.

[f] A reference to the myth about Antaeus.—Ed.

[g] An allusion to the main character in Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme.—Ed.

[h] R. Cobden's speech before the Manchester constituents on March 18, 1857, The Times, No. 22633, March 20, 1857.—Ed.

[291] See Note 285↓ and also K. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (present edition, Vol. 11, parts VI and VII).

[292] The Reform Bill of 1832 was directed against the political monopoly of the landed and financial aristocracy and gave representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie access to Parliament. The proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, the main forces in the struggle for the reform, received no electoral rights.

[293] The Legitimists, supporters of the main branch of the Bourbon dynasty overthrown in 1830, expressed the interests of the big hereditary landowners and upheld the claim to the French throne of the Count of Chambord, King Charles X's grandson, who called himself Henry V. Some of the Legitimists remained outside the bloc of monarchist groups.

[294] The Orleanists were supporters of the House of Orleans (a lateral branch of the Bourbon dynasty) overthrown by the February revolution of 1848; they represented the interests of the financial aristocracy and the big industrial bourgeoisie; their candidate for the throne was Louis Philippe Albert, Count of Paris and grandson of Louis Philippe.

[295] The Free Traders advocated removal of protective tariffs and non-intervention by the government in economic life. They were supporters of the Manchester School—a trend in economic thinking which reflected the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. The centre of the Free Traders' agitation was Manchester, where the movement was headed by two textile manufacturers, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who founded the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838 (see Note 299↓). In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were a separate political group, which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.

[296] A reference to the talks, sponsored by Emperor Francis Joseph, between the British, French and Russian Ambassadors and Austrian Minister Buol, which opened in December 1854. Their official purpose was to work out a basis for peace negotiations 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). The conference produced no results.

[297] The Test Act of 1673 demanded recognition of the dogmas of the Church of England by persons occupying government posts. At first directed against attempts to re-establish Catholicism, this Act was subsequently applied against various religious sects and trends which deviated from the dogmas of the Established Church. Repealed in 1828.

Under the Corporation Act passed by the British Parliament in 1661 persons who held elected posts (this applied mainly to municipal administration) were required to accept the dogmas of the Church of England. Repealed in 1828.
On the Parliamentary Reform Bill see Note 292↑.

The Municipal Corporation Acts, adopted for Scotland in 1833 and for England in 1835 introduced a single system of government in all big cities except London. In Scotland municipal corporations were elected by landlords with an annual income of no less than ten pounds; and in England by all taxpayers.

Under the Commutation Act of 1838, the tithes, which the native Catholic population of Ireland had allotted to the Anglican Church from the sixteenth century, were commuted: payment in kind was changed to a special money-rent which was part of the rent of land.

Dissenters or Dissidents were members of various Protestant sects and trends in England who to some degree or other rejected the dogmas of the Established Church. Under the Dissenters' Marriage Bill introduced by Russell into the House of Commons in 1834, the dissenters were to be allowed to conduct marriage rituals in their churches. The adoption of the Bill was postponed.

[298] Stamp duty and advertisement duty on newspapers introduced in 1712 were the sources of state revenue and a means of fighting the opposition press. In 1836 Parliament was compelled to reduce stamp duty and in 1855 to abolish it altogether. Advertisement duty was annulled in 1853.

The annulment of these duties was not in the interests of the few expensive newspapers because it encouraged the appearance of many cheap rival newspapers, thus lowering the profits of the older newspapers.

[299] In 1774 Baron A. R. J. Turgot, who became controller general of finances, introduced free trade in corn and flour. This measure and his subsequent reforms roused strong opposition on the part of the Court, high priesthood, nobility and officialdom. In 1776 Louis XVI signed his resignation.

The Anti-Corn Law League was founded in 1838 by the Manchester textile manufacturers and free traders Richard Cobden and John Bright. It campaigned for the repeal of the high import tariffs on corn established in 1815 and for unrestricted free trade. The League ceased to exist after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

[285] Louis Bonaparte's appeal to the National Assembly of November 4, 1851, contained a demagogic demand for the re-establishment of universal suffrage in France. After the National Assembly's rejection of the Bill, introduced on the occasion by Bonaparte's ministry, Louis Bonaparte accomplished a coup d'état on December 2, 1851.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.226-231), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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