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[Mr. John Bright][69]

Karl Marx

Mr. John Bright is not only one of the most gifted orators that England has ever produced; but he is at this moment the leader of the Radical members of the House of Commons, and holds the balance of power between the traditional parties of the Whigs and Tories[70]. Rejected from Parliament for opposing Lord Palmerston's Chinese war, by the electors of Manchester[71], he was taken up, when prostrate under the combined influence of this political defeat and of grievous bodily illness, and elected by the constituency of Birmingham. As he left the House at one important historical epoch, so his return to it, after a long period of suffering and of silence, constituted another. That return was marked by the forced retirement of Lord Palmerston from the Government[72]. Coming into the House, in which Palmerston had worn the authority of a dictator, Mr. Bright, with almost no personal following, overthrew that veteran tactician, and not only made a new Ministry but was able virtually to dictate the terms on which it should hold office. The magnitude of this position lent an unusual importance to Mr. Bright's first meeting with his constituents, which took place in the last week of October. This was the first time that the great orator had addressed a popular assemblage since his recovery from illness, and a dramatic interest accordingly attached to the event. At the same time the official parties of the country were anxiously awaiting a declaration of peace or war from the man, who, if excluded from himself framing a new reform bill, will at all events decide which of these parties is to frame it.

Mr. Bright twice addressed his constituents; once at a public meeting held to receive him, and again at a banquet given in his honor[a]. Of these speeches we, on another page, present the leading points and most striking passages[73]. Considered in a merely rhetorical point of view, they are not equal to previous performances of their author. They contain admirable touches of eloquence, but in that respect are inferior to the famous speech on the Russian war, or to the speech of last Spring on the Indian rebellion[b]. But that was a matter of necessity. The object in hand was to set forth a political programme fit to answer widely differing ends. On the one hand, it is designed to be immediately brought into Parliament as a legislative measure, and, on the other hand, to become the rallying cry of all sections of reformers, and, in fact, to create a compact Reform party. This problem, which Mr. Bright had to solve, did not allow of any extraordinary display of rhetorical power, but required plainness, common sense and perspicuity. It is praise enough, then, to say that Mr. Bright has anew proved himself a consummate orator by adapting his style to his subject. His programme may be described as a reduction of what has been called the People's Charter to a middle-class standard[74]. He fully adopts one point of the Charter—the Ballot[75]. He reduces another point, Universal Suffrage, while declaring that he personally believes in it, to the vote of rate-payers, so that the qualifications now required for being a parochial and municipal elector will suffice to make a man an imperial elector also. He lastly reduces a third point of the Charter, namely, the equalization of electoral districts, to a fairer distribution of representatives among the different constituencies. Such is his proposition. He would have it drawn up and introduced into Parliament as the Reformer's own bill, in opposition to the country gentlemen's measure, which the Derby Cabinet are likely to introduce, thinking that, as in the case of the Reform bill of 1830[76], union will arise as soon as the scheme is brought before the House. The proposed reform being thus set on foot, petitions from the different towns should be sent in to support it. The House of Commons might give way before such a general demonstration, and if, as is probable, the Government should resort to a new election, it would only afford a new opportunity for agitation. Lastly, Mr. Bright wishes the Reform party to reject every bill which concedes less than he demands.

The impression which this demonstration has produced in England is no doubt fairly reflected in the London journals. The Times[c], with ill humor but slightly concealed, compares the last and most important speech to the fabulous mouse which, according to the Roman poet, was the offspring of a mountain in travail[d]. The contents of the speech, it says, are trivial. There is no novelty about them. Neither are they clothed in a new garb. Any stump orator spouting on Reform might have delivered the identical speech in the identical words. The only thing that appears new to The Times, because of its very obsoleteness, is the bad taste of Mr. Bright in excavating long-forgotten invectives against the House of Lords—as if the Lords had not just condescended to become popular lecturers on sociology, indoctrinating the lower orders how to bear cheerfully their predestinated inferiority!—as if the Birmingham of 1858 was the Birmingham of 1830, with its revolutionary Political Union[77]! An underbred man alone could commit such unfashionable anachronisms. On the other hand, The Times is perplexed at the want of discernment displayed by Mr. Bright in speaking for the ballot, although he must be fully aware of the fact that all the heaven-born statesmen—Whig and Tory and Peelite and Palmerstonian—are unanimous against that political heresy. The Tory press, on the other hand, lament the aberrations of so "honest" a man as Mr. Bright. They say that he has allowed himself to be ensnared into traps treacherously laid for him by Whiggish Pharisees. This speech, it seems, they consider an open breach of the truce between the Radicals and the Conservatives. Lord Palmerston's organ—The Morning Post—however, is not at all disappointed, since it knew all along that nothing good could come from this stubborn Roundhead[78]. The Morning Chronicle—which takes up a middling position between the Palmerstonian and Derbyite press—laments, in the interest of Mr. Bright himself, that he should have flung all moderation to the wind, and spoken not like a statesman, but like a demagogue. The Radical press, and especially the Radical penny papers, are, on the other hand, unanimous in applause of both the doctrines of Mr. Bright and the manner in which he has now stated them.[79]

Written on October 29, 1858
First published in the New-York Daily Tribune, No. 5479, November 12, 1858 as a leading article;
reprinted in the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune, No. 1406, November 16, 1858
Reproduced from the New-York Daily Tribune


[a] John Bright's speeches at a meeting of Birmingham constituents on October 27, 1858, The Times, No. 23136, October 28, 1858, and at a banquet in Birmingham, The Times, No. 23138, October 30, 1858.—Ed.

[b] John Bright's speeches in the House of Commons on March 31, 1854, The Times, No. 21704, April 1, 1854, and on March 26, 1858, The Times, No. 22952, March 27, 1858.—Ed.

[c] The Times, No. 23137, October 29, 1858 (leading article).—Ed.

[d] Horace, Ars Poetica, 139.—Ed.

[69] This article, published in the New-York Daily Tribune as a leader, bears signs of the editors' interference; in particular, they heavily edited the first paragraph and added the last one. The enthusiastic epithets used to describe Bright also belong to them. The heading is given according to the beginning of the article. In the New-York Semi-Weekly Tribune it appeared under the heading "Radicalism in England".

[70] On June 11, 1858 Marx wrote in his article "Political Parties in England.—The Situation in Europe": "The fact is that the two ruling oligarchic parties of England were long ago transformed into mere factions, without any distinctive principles. Having in vain tried first a coalition and then a dictatorship they are now arrived at the point where each of them can only think of obtaining a respite of life by betraying their common interest into the hands of their common foe, the radical middle-class party, who are powerfully represented in the Commons by John Bright" (present edition, Vol. 15).

[71] The reference is to the war waged by Britain and France against China in 1856-60 (the second Opium war). In his article "The British Quarrel with China" (present edition, Vol. 15) Marx described in detail the events which served as the casus belli. On the defeat of the Manchester school in the elections to the House of Commons in March 1857 see Marx's article "The Defeat of Cobden, Bright and Gibson" (present edition, Vol. 15).

[72] On January 20, 1858 Count Walewski, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent a Note to the British Government expressing dissatisfaction with Britain's granting of the right of asylum to political refugees. In view of this, on February 8 Palmerston introduced the Conspiracy to Murder Bill in the House of Commons. During the second reading of the Bill on February 19, Milner Gibson proposed an amendment censuring Palmerston's Government for not replying to the Note. Adopted by the majority, the amendment was actually a vote of no-confidence in the government and forced it to resign.

[73] This sentence was inserted by the Tribune editors.

[74] Marx gave an assessment of Bright's programme in his letter to Engels of November 29, 1858: "As regards the reform movement in England, all I have discussed latterly is Bright's meeting in Birmingham, the gist of the article being that his programme is a reduction of the People's Charter to the middle-class standard" (see present edition, Vol. 40).

[75] Marx refers to Point 4 of the People's Charter, which was the Chartists' political programme. It reads: "Voting by ballot to prevent bribery and intimidation by the bourgeoisie" (see present edition, Vol. 4, p. 518).

[76] The reference is to the Reform Bill which was finally passed by the British Parliament in June 1832. The Reform Act of 1832 consisted of three acts adopted accordingly for England and Wales on June 7, for Scotland on July 17, and for Ireland on August 17, 1832. It was directed against the political monopoly of the landed and finance aristocracy and enabled the industrial bourgeoisie to be duly represented in Parliament. The proletariat and the petty bourgeoisie, the main forces in the struggle for the reform, remained disfranchised.

[77] The Birmingham Political Union for the Protection of Public Rights, founded by Thomas Attwood in 1830, played an important role in the struggle for the 1832 reform.

[78] Roundheads—the nickname given by the Royalists to the Parliamentarians during the seventeenth-century English revolution.

[79] In the New-York Daily Tribune this is followed by a paragraph inserted by its editors: "For our part, regarding the question as one of political justice and popular progress, and as tending, in its solution, to a more democratic government of England, we hail Mr. Bright's movement with joyful hope, and bid him God-speed in his manly and noble efforts."

Source: Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 16 (pp.87-90), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
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