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The Defeat of Cobden, Bright and Gibson[301]

Karl Marx

London, March 31, 1857

"The mass of candidates put forward their intention to give a general support to Lord Palmerston, as their best claim to be returned as representatives of public opinion in the new Parliament. ...Palmerston will enter the House, not as the head of a Conservative, or a Whig, or a Peelite[302], or a Radical party, but as the leader of the English people, and as the great designer and administrator of a national party."[a]

Such are the words of The Morning Post, Lord Palmerston's private organ. Palmerston as dictator, the new Parliament as his corps législatif[303]—such is their meaning, which the electoral bulletins seem to warrant. As to the "public opinion" spoken of by The Post, it has been justly said that Palmerston manufactures one half of it, and laughs at the other half.

The complete rout of the Manchester School[304]—Bright and Milner Gibson being unseated at Manchester, Cobden at Huddersfield, Sir E. Armitage at Salford, Fox at Oldham and Miall at Rochdale—is the great event of the electoral battle. The issue of the Manchester election particularly took every one by surprise, even the Palmerston Government. How little stress it had laid upon the chances of victory in that quarter may be inferred from its unsettled and hesitating conduct. First, on the receipt of some Manchester addresses, Palmerston threatened to proceed himself to Cottonopolis, hurling defiance at his antagonists on "their own dunghill." On second thought, however, he shrank back. Then Bob Lowe, the Ministerial understrapper, came forward. Invited by a coterie of great mill lords to stand for Manchester, and receiving pledges that, if defeated, a sum of £2,000 should be handed to him, which might enable him to buy one of the county rotten boroughs[305], he publicly accepted the offer, and allowed an electioneering committee to set out canvassing in his name. Then came Mr. Cobden's great Manchester speech[b][306] Palmerston now bid Lowe retract, which he did. On further reflection still, the Manchester attempt appeared so destitute of all elements of success that. The Times was ordered to play the part of the fox in the fabel[c] Bob Lowe had to write a leader insisting upon the re-election of Bright & Co., and warning Manchester not to disgrace itself by the repudiation of its old representatives. When, in spite of all these misgivings, the electric wire flashed to Downing street the news of Cobden's defeat, of Bright's and Gibson's rejection, and by overwhelming majorities, too, judge of the rapturous delight and the maddening cries of triumph in the Ministerial camp. As to Palmerston himself, he thought perhaps that he had been too successful for his own purposes—keenly aware, as the old trickster is, that to paralyze even a giant, you have only to get him into the House of Commons, while to hasten the breaking down of that House itself—of its basis, the privileged constituencies, and its superstructure, Ministerial usurpation—you have only to turn out its eminent members and throw them on the street, thus giving chiefs of note to the disinherited multitude outside the gates of the "British Constitution."

The defeat of the Manchester School in their own strongholds, by the bulk of their own army, bears all the appearances of a personal triumph on the part of Palmerston, not only because Cobden and Gibson moved the vote of censure, which was to drive him from the Cabinet, and which afforded the pretext for the dissolution of Parliament. A deadly antagonism of principles and situations seems to resume itself in the persons of Palmerston on the one side, of Bright, Cobden & Co., on the other. Palmerston, the trumpet of national glory, they, the organs of industrial interests; the diplomatic Viscount concentrating in his person all the usurpations of the British oligarchy, the parvenu demagogues representing all the vitality of the British middle classes; he deriving his strength from the decay of parties, they owing their force to the struggle of classes—the last unscrupulous incarnation of old Toryism against the chiefs of the new defunct Anti-Corn-Law League[307]. Thus the defeat of Cobden, Bright & Co. appears as a personal triumph of Palmerston, the more their victorious opponents on the hustings can claim no importance of their own. Sir John Potter, for instance, the opponent of Bright, is only known as the fattest man of Manchester. He would go under the name of the Manchester Sir John Falstaff, if his small wit and his long purse did not protect him from being compared to that immortal knight. A. Turner, Milner Gibson's opponent, rested his personal claims on the fact of his being a commonplace man who would never hurt the feelings of his fellow-citizens by unpleasant pretensions to genius or brilliancy. Mr. Akroyd, finally, the opponent of Cobden, accused the latter of being an imperial man, while he (Akroyd) had never been anything, and would certainly never be anything beyond a plain Huddersfield man. All of them gloried in being not men of talent but of character, which latter gift was sure to preclude them from falling, like their predecessors, into the fault of "opposing all Governments," and of sacrificing, like Milner Gibson, lucrative offices to theoretical crotchets.

Yet, in spite of appearances, the appeal of Palmerston against Cobden and Co.[d] afforded, not the cause, but only the pretext for the explosion of combustible materials which, for a long time, were gathering round the precincts of the Manchester School. Manchester forming the nucleus of the party, and Bright being acknowledged as its true hero, it will suffice to consider his defeat to account for the simultaneous failure of his companions in arms at other manufacturing places. There were, first, the old Whigs and Tories of Manchester, eager to revenge themselves for their political nullity since the days of the Anti-Corn-Law League. The elections of 1852, when Bright carried it over them by a majority of 100 votes only, had already shown their numerical force to be by no means contemptible. Unable, as they certainly were, to vanquish under their own banners, they formed a powerful contingent for any seceding corps of the Bright army. Then, in second line, came the leaders of the high-priced press, with their inveterate rancor and lurid malignity against the parliamentary godfathers of the penny press[308]. Mr. Garnett, the editor of The Manchester Guardian, stirred heaven and earth against Bright, and proved indefatigable in clothing in more or less decent garbs the shabby motives of the anti-Bright coalition—an attempt facilitated by the unpopularity Bright and Cobden had incurred at the time of the Russian war[309]. At that period they could, indeed, not venture upon fronting a public meeting at Manchester, but had to hide themselves in select tea-parties at Newall's buildings, the old abode of the Anti-Corn-Law League. Of the liberal bourgeoisie, the mill lords and the large commercial firms, an overwhelming majority voted against Bright; of the petty middle class and the shopocracy, that numerous minority only which everywhere in the United Kingdom sticks to the heels of its "natural superiors," Quakers[310] and Irishmen, stood like one man for Bright. Whence this secession of the liberal bourgeoisie? To a great extent it is explained by the impatience of the rich "men of Manchester" to become "gentlemen," like their rivals at Liverpool. If they had borne with the superiority of a man of genius like Bright so long as he was the indispensable tool of their class-interests, they now thought the opportunity ripe for indulging the envious ostracism of well-to-do mediocrities. However, they rebelled not only against his personal superiority, but still more against the superannuated pretensions of the Anti-Corn-Law League rump, which weighed upon Manchester somewhat as the Rump Parliament[311] did upon the Commonwealth of England; periodically assembling under the presidency of Mr. Wilson, that "venerable fixture" and a retired starch merchant by profession, supported on the platform by Mr. Robinson, the honorary Secretary of the League, and other men without social standing or personal eminence, whom the billows of a tempest-beaten period had thrown on the surface, who obstinately refused to subside, and could, indeed, show no cause for their protracted appearance on the political stage, but the worn-out tradition of the past, and the conventional lie of the present, of playing Manchester whenever Bright wanted to call it sup. One of the leaders of the rebellion, Mr. Entwistle, declared roundly on the hustings:

"It is not the question of the Chinese war, or of the Russian war, or of any war at all. The question is, whether Manchester shall any longer submit to the dictation of the remnant of the party that assembles at Newall's buildings."

In finally burying the incubus of the Anti-Corn-Law League rump, the Manchester mill lords, while flattering themselves that they were closing the doors of their Jacobin club, were, of course, not aware that they were sweeping away the main obstruction to a new revolutionary movement.

The rationale, however, of the Manchester election was betrayed by a drunken anti-Bright man, who, during the polling, kept on crying vociferously: "We won't have home policy; we want foreign policy." In other words: Away with reform questions and class struggles! After all, the middle classes form the majority of electors, and that is all we want. The cry against the aristocracy has become tiresome, unprofitable, and is only stirring up the working men. We have got free trade, and feel marvelously at our ease, especially since the reduction of the war income tax. We clearly love a lord for all that. "We won't have home policy; we want foreign policy." Let all of us unite on that ground where we are all equals, on the national ground. Let us all be Englishmen, true John Bulls, under the leadership of the truly British Minister, Lord Palmerston.[312]

The true secret, then, of the Manchester election is, the abdication on the part of the mill lords of the revolutionary leadership they had usurped during the Anti-Corn-Law League agitation.

Written on March 31, 1857
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 4990, April 17, 1857


[a] The Morning Post, No. 25971, March 27, 1857, leading article.—Ed.

[b] R. Cobden's speech in the Freetrade Hall, Manchester, on March 18, 1857, The Times, No. 22633, March 20, 1857.—Ed.

[c] Aesop, "The Fox and the Crow".—Ed.

[d] A reference to Lord Palmerston's speech at the meeting in Tiverton on March 27, 1857.—Ed.

[301] In this article Marx used the information in Engels' letters of March 11, 20 and 31, 1857 (see present edition, Vol. 40, pp. 104, 110, 115-16).

[302] The Whigs—apolitical party in England in the seventeenth-nineteenth centuries that arose as a faction expressing the interests of the aristocracy which had become bourgeois and the big commercial and finance bourgeoisie. In the mid-nineteenth century, they united with the Peelites and began to call themselves the Liberal Party.

The Peelites—adherents of Robert Peel, who favoured concessions to the trading and industrial bourgeoisie in the sphere of economics and the continued political supremacy of the big landowners and financial magnates. In 1846 Peel secured the repeal of the Corn Laws in the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie; this aroused great discontent among the Protectionist Tories and led to a split in the Tory Party and the formation of an independent group by the Peelites. After Peel's death in 1850, the Peelites had no definite programme. At the end of the 1850s and the beginning of the 1860s they joined the Liberal Party, which was then being formed.

In February 1852 the Peelites seconded Palmerston's amendment to the militia Bill, which led to the resignation of Lord Russell's Government. In December of that year they opposed the budget suggested by Derby. Derby's cabinet was also forced to resign. In February 1855, Aberdeen's Ministry also fell. The Peelites helped Palmerston come to power by agreeing to enter his cabinet. However, when their leaders, William Gladstone, Sidney Herbert and James Graham, resigned shortly afterwards, Palmerston immediately replaced them by Whig representatives.

[303] The Corps Législatif was established, alongside the State Council and the Senate, under the Constitution of February 14, 1852, after the Bonapartist coup d'état of 1851. Its powers were confined to endorsing bills drawn up by the State Council. The Corps Législatif was an elected body. However, the elections were supervised by state officials and the police, so that a majority obedient to the government was ensured. In fact it served as a screen for Napoleon III's unlimited powers.

[304] 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 307↓). In the 1840s and 1850s the Free Traders were a separate political group, which later formed the Left wing of the Liberal Party.

[305] Rotten boroughs (the name current in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) were sparsely populated or depopulated towns and villages which had enjoyed the right to send representatives to Parliament since the Middle Ages. The Reform Acts of 1832 (see notes 230 and 292), 1867 and 1884 deprived the rotten boroughs of their privileges.

[306] In his speech to the electors in the Free Trade. Hall in Manchester on March 18, 1857 Cobden criticised Palmerston's home and foreign policy, in particular his aggressive policy against China and Persia. He also gave an unfavourable appraisal of Bob Lowe.

[307] 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.

[308] By the "parliamentary godfathers of the penny press" Marx means the Manchester bourgeois radicals (in particular John Bright) who, both inside and outside Parliament, took an active part in the agitation for the abolition of the stamp and advertisement duties (see Note 298↓).

[309] The Free Traders' leaders John Bright and Richard Cobden opposed England's participation in the Crimean war, 1853-56, maintaining that by free trade alone England could use her industrial superiority substantially to strengthen her economic and political might.

[310] Quakers (or the Society of Friends)—a religious sect founded in England during the seventeenth-century revolution and later widespread in North America. They rejected the Established Church with its rites and preached pacifist ideas.

[311] The Rump Parliament or the Rump—the remnant of the Long Parliament (convened by Charles I in 1640) after the expulsion of its Presbyterian majority in December 1648. The Rump—about a hundred Independents, supporters of the Protestant Church—was dissolved by Cromwell in April 1653.

[312] "The truly British minister"—this ironic reference to Lord Palmerston is based on a passage from Lord Russell's speech in the House of Commons on June 20, 1850, who said: "...So long as we continue the government of this country, I can answer for my noble friend that he will act not as the minister ... of any other country, but as the minister of England."

[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.

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 15 (pp.238-242), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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