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Karl Marx

For the last two months a polemic has been going on in the local press whose records should be of much more interest to the future historian of English society than all the catalogues of the Great Exhibition,[1] illustrated or not illustrated.

It will be recalled that shortly before the closing of Parliament a bill was rushed through both houses in great haste, at the insistence of the big industrialists, which raises the tax for the poor in the municipalities of Lancashire and Yorkshire.[a] This measure, very limited in itself, in the main affects the lower middle classes in the factory districts, while it hardly touches the landlords and the cotton lords.[b] During the debate on the Bill, Palmerston used harsh language towards the cotton lords, whose workers were starving in the streets while they themselves were heaping up riches by speculative buying and selling of cotton.[c] He explained their "masterly inaction" during the crisis likewise on "speculative" grounds. Even at the opening of the session, lord Derby had declared that the cotton shortage had been like a ileus ex machina[d] for the manufacturers, since an enormous Hooding of the markets would have caused a frightful crisis if the American Civil War had not suddenly cut off imports of raw materials.[e] Cobden, as spokesman for the industrialists, answered with a three-day diatribe against Palmerston's foreign policies.[f]

After the prorogation of Parliament, the fight went on in the press. Appeals to the English public for relief for the suffering working population, and the constantly growing dimensions of impoverishment in the factory districts, gave new occasions daily for continuing the fight. The Morning Star and other organs of the industrial press recalled that the Earl of Derby and a whole gang of aristocrats owed their yearly rents of 300,000 and more pounds sterling on their real estate holdings in the factory districts solely to industry, in which they had never invested anything, and which had given their previously worthless land its present price. The Morning Star went so far as to set a figure for the charitable contributions that Derby and other big landlords should give. It set Derby's contribution, e.g., at 30,000 pounds. In fact, Lord Derby called a meeting in Manchester shortly after Parliament adjourned, to collect charitable contributions. He taxed himself at 1,000 pounds and the other large landholders signed for corresponding amounts. T h e result was not brilliant, but the landed aristocracy had done something at least. They beat their breasts with a "salvavi animam meam".[g]

The high dignitaries of the cotton industry, meanwhile, persisted in their "stoic" attitude. They are nowhere to be found, neither in the local committees that were formed to alleviate the distress nor in the London committee. "They are neither here nor there, but they are on the Liverpool market",[h] says a London paper. The Tory journals and The Times fulminate daily against the cotton despots who have sucked millions "out of the flesh and blood of the workers" and now refuse even to contribute a few pennies to preserve "the source of their wealth".[i] The Times has sent its reporters into the factory districts; their highly detailed reports are in no way calculated to make the "cotton lords" popular.[j] On the other hand, the industrial organs of the press—the Morning Star, Economist[k] Manchester Guardian, etc.— accuse The Times of fomenting the class struggle in order to cover up the guilt of the government, its mismanagement in India, etc. Indeed, The Times is even charged with "communist tendencies". The Times, obviously much pleased at this chance to win back its popularity, replies with biting sarcasm: While the "cotton lords" act in a highly economistic manner, on the one hand, in that they take speculative advantage of the present cotton shortage, on the other hand, they are hardened communists, and indeed "communists of the most loathsome kind". These rich gentlemen demanded that England open its pockets in order to preserve the most valuable portion of their capital, without any cost to themselves, whatsoever. For their capital does not consist solely of factories, machinery and bank balances, but, to an even greater extent, of the well-disciplined armies of workers in Lancashire and Yorkshire. And while the gentlemen close down their factories in order to sell the raw material at 500 per cent profit, they demanded that the English people keep their discharged armies going!

During this strange dispute between the landed aristocracy and the industrial aristocracy, as to which of them grinds the working class down the most, and which of them is least obliged to do something about the workers' distress, things are happening to the patients themselves that the continental admirers of the "Great Exhibition"[l] have no inkling of. The incident that I describe in the following lines is officially confirmed.

In a small cottage[m] at Gauxholme, near Todmorden (West Riding of Yorkshire), there lived a father and his two daughters; the father was old and feeble, and the girls earned their living as workers at the Halliwells' cotton mill. They lived in a miserable room on the ground floor, a few feet from a filthy little brook, and past their window a staircase, used by the people who lived upstairs, cut off the light from their dreary habitation. At the best of times, they earned just enough to "keep body and soul together", but for the last 15 weeks they had lost the only source of their livelihood. The factory had been closed down; the family could no longer earn the means to buy food. Step by step, poverty dragged them into its abyss. Every hour brought them nearer to the grave. Their pitiful savings were soon exhausted. Next came their few sticks of furniture, clothing, linen, and whatever could be sold or pawned — to be converted into bread. It is a fact that during the 14 weeks in which they did not earn a farthing, they never asked for help from the parish.

To add to their troubles, the old man had been sick for a month and unable to leave his bed. The tragedy of Ugolino and his sons[n] was repeated, without their cannibalism, in the cottage at Todmorden. In desperation, about a week ago (on the 12th) the stronger of the two girls pulled herself together, went to the head of the poorhouse and told him the pitiful story. This gentleman, hard though it may be to believe, told her he could do nothing for the family until the following Wednesday. The three poor sufferers would have to perish for five more days until the mighty bailiff would condescend to give them some help. The family waited — there was nothing else they could do. When the appointed Wednesday finally arrived on which official charity was to throw a crumb to the starving family, the village was horrified by the report that one of the sisters had died of starvation. The terrible news was all too true. Stretched out on a wretched plank bed, among the signs of the most terrible poverty, lay the corpse of the starved girl, while her father, worn and helpless, sobbed on his bed and the surviving sister had just enough strength to tell the story of her woe. We know, by experience, where this horrible case, by no means an exception today, will lead. An inquest will be held. The coroner[o] will dwell at length on the charitable spirit of the English poor law; he will again adduce the excellence of the machinery for administering it as prima facie[p] proof that the law cannot possibly be responsible for the deplorable event. The head of the poorhouse will be whitewashed, and if not warmly complimented by the court, will at any rate learn, to his comfort, that there is not the slightest stain on him. Finally, the jury will crown the solemn comedy by the verdict: "Died by the visitation of God."[q]

Written about September 20, 1862
First published in Die Presse, No. 266, September 27, 1862
Printed according to the newspaper
Published in English for the first time
* MECW-V19-PP239-242


[1] This refers to the second Great Exhibition, held in London from May to November 1862. [N255 V19 P394]

[a] An Act to enable Boards of Guardians of certain Unions to obtain temporary Aid to meet the extraordinary Demands {or Reliej therein.—Ed.

[b] Here and below Marx uses the English words "landlords", "cotton lords" and "masterly inaction", and gives the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

[c] Falmerston's speech in the House ol Commons on July 30, 1862 (The Times, No. 24312, July 31. 1862).—Ed.

[d] Literally: "a deity from a machine" (in the ancient Greek and Roman theatre, the intervention of a god, brought in suddenly by stage machinery, to resolve an apparently insoluble conflict).—Ed.

[e] E. G. Derby's speech in the House of Lords on February 6, 1862 (The Times, No. 24163, February 7, 1862).—Ed.

[f] Cobden spoke about foreign policy on August 1, 1862, i.e. on the third day of his long House of Commons address (The Times, No. 24314, August 2, 1862).—Ed.

[g] "I have delivered my soul" (cf. Ezekiel, 3:19, 33:9).—Ed.

[h] Marx gives this sentence in English and supplies the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

[i] "It must tend to relieve...", The Times, No. 24333, August 25, 1862.—Ed.

[j] Reports from Blackburn, Wigan, Stockport and Ashton-under-Lyne published in The Times on August 30 and September 2, 5, 12 and 16, 1862.—Ed.

[k] See, e.g., "Distress and Relief in Lancashire", The Economist, No. 994, September 13, 1862.—Ed.

[l] Marx uses the English name.—Ed.

[m] Marx uses the English word.—Ed.

[n] Dante, La Divina Commedia. Inferno, Canto XXXIII.—Ed.

[o] Marx uses the English word and gives the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

[p] Self-evident.—Ed.

[q] Marx uses the English phrase and gives the German translation in brackets.—Ed.

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