Marx on England

First published in January 1983

By John Ross

In the 1960s a major debate took place on the British Left concerning the overall development of English history. The major contributions were Perry Anderson’s Origins of the Present Crisis and EP Thompson’s The Peculiarities of the English. One figure was however strangely absent in the discussion: Karl Marx himself. Yet Marx’s writings are probably the most striking, original and coherent of all on English history. On the 100th anniversary of his death, JOHN ROSS therefore re-examines Marx’s writings on the development of English history.

The nature of capitalist agriculture

Marx held that the most fundamental of all determinants of English history had been the way in which the question of land­ownership had been resolved in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. England in fact constituted the only major coun­try in Europe in which the land question had been resolved in a ‘classical way’.[1] It was the creation of large scale capitalist lan­downing which then laid the basis of the entire subsequent political development of Britain. It totally differentiated England from for example France, where the bourgeois revolu­tion had created not large scale capitalist agriculture but instead a relative parcellisation of the land. As Marx put it. ‘The puzzle of why the English revolution was so conservative in character… is to be attributed to the permanent alliance between the bourgeoisie and the greater part of the big landlords, an alliance which essentially differentiates the English revolution from the French – the revolution that abolished big lan­downership by parcellisation.’ [2]

Whereas strong elements of pre-capitalist relations in land continued to exist in much of Europe into the 18th and even 19th centuries, serfdom in England was already broken by the end of the 14th century. This break-up of feudalism was speed­ed up by the massacre of the nobility in the civil wars of the 15th century and, most importantly, by the rise of the Flemish wool manufactures. These factors, combined with the policies of the Tudor absolute monarchy, destroyed the military power of the old feudal aristocracy, and also began to create the first nuclei of a proletariat. A further impetus to the whole process was then given by Henry VIII’s [4] expropriation and subsequent resale, of monastic and church lands.[5] As Marx summarises the results of this process: ‘England, at the end of the 16th century, had a class of capitalist farmers, rich, considering the cir­cumstances of the time.’ [6] ‘The old nobility had been devoured by the great feudal wars. The new nobility was a child of its time, for which money was the power of all power.’ [7] ‘The spoilation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the state domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property… conquered the field for capitalist agriculture.’ [8]

This whole process of the creation of capitalist landowning in turn was only made possible because of the mounting wealth of the English ruling class as a whole and its international strength. As Marx put it: ‘As soon as rent assumes the form of money-rent, and thereby the relationship between the rent­paying peasant and the landlord becomes a relationship fixed by contract – a development which is only possible generally when the world-market, commerce and manufacture have reached a relatively high level – the leasing of lands to capitalists inevitably also makes its appearance. The latter hitherto stood beyond the rural limits and now carry over to the countryside and agriculture the capital acquired in the cities and with it the capitalist mode of operation developed – ie creating a product as a mere commodity and solely as a means of appropriating surplus-value. This form can become the general rule only in those countries which dominate the world market in the period of transition from the feudal to the capitalist mode of production. When the capitalist farmer steps in between landlord and actual tiller of the soil, all relations which arose out of the old rural mode of production are torn asunder.’ [9]

The nucleus of these developments meant that even before the English bourgeois revolution accomplished the transfer of political power from the monarchy, the rising bourgeoisie was no longer faced with any decisive section of landowners based on feudal relations of production. By the 17th century the dominant sections of the landowning class were already themselves based on capitalist relations of production. This situation was in turn the core of all subsequent developments, meaning that the landowners did not come into violent conflict with a rising bourgeoisie but on the contrary were able to merge with them. Indeed the landowners were the dominant element of the rising capitalist class.

‘Unlike the French feudal landowners, this class of big pro­prietors, which had allied itself with the bourgeoisie and which incidentally had arisen already under Henry VIII, was not an­tagonistic to but rather in complete accord with the conditions of life of the bourgeoisie. In actual fact their landed estates were not feudal but bourgeois property. On the one hand, the landed proprietors placed at the disposal of the industrial bourgeoisie the people necessary to operate its factories and, on the other, were in a position to develop agriculture in accor­dance with the state of industry and trade. Hence their common interests with the bourgeoisie; hence their alliance with it.’ [10]

This alliance of capitalist agriculture with other bourgeois forces continued under the Stuart restoration and the combina­tion was the instrumental force of the ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688.[11] The landowners and the finance and commercial bourgeoisie were able to use the state power gained in the civil war to further develop capitalist relations in the countryside and to secure a massive extension of international trade. Only much later, in the latter part of the eighteenth century, did an industrial bourgeoisie proper arise.[12]

The rise of manufacturing capital

One of the most important aspects of the compromise between landed elements and sections of the finance bourgeoisie which Marx notes was the potential it created for the actual process of governing to be carried out by groups at a very considerable remove from the actual centres of economic power. Indeed Marx held that the distinction between ‘the class which rules of­ficially and the class that rules unofficially’ was a fundamental feature of ‘that antiquated compromise called the British con­stitution.’ [13]

This potential for dissociation between economic dominance and political power in turn exemplified Marx and Engels’ general point that many different state forms can exist on the basis of the same mode of production – a phenomenon particularly extensively explored in their contemporary writings on ‘Bonapartism’ in France. Thus Engels wrote: ‘In France… the bourgeoisie as such, as a class in its entirety, held power for only two years, 1849 and 1850. Under the republic it was able to continue its social existence only by abdicating its political power to Louis Bonaparte and the army.’[14]

And for Marx: ‘It was not the French bourgeoisie which rul­ed under Louis Phillipe, but one fraction of it: bankers, stock ­exchange kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, and a part of the landed proprietors associated with them – the so-­called finance aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chamber, it distributed public offices, from cabinet port­folios to tobacco bureau posts.’ [15]

Returning to England, Marx saw one of the basic features of the English state system in a similar long drawn out dissocia­tion between economic and social dominance.

‘This British Constitution, what is it but a superannuated compromise by which the general governing power is abandon­ed to some sections of the middle class, on condition that the whole of the real government, the Executive in all its details, even to the executive department of the legislative power – or that is the actual lawmaking in the two Houses of Parliament – is secured to the landed aristocracy? This aristocracy… sub­ject to general principles laid down by the middle class, rules supreme in the Cabinet, the Parliament, the Administration, the Army and the Navy.’ [16]

In fact Marx held that neither of the dominant parties until the mid-19th century, the Whigs and the Tories, was a direct representative of non-landowning forces; both were based on the landed aristocracy.[17] Only well into the 19th century did a genuine group emerge who in a direct major fashion were based on the bourgeoisie and who directly expressed interests of its dominant layers. Until at least the middle of the 19th century, despite being the first and pre-eminent industrial capitalist class of the world, the British manufacturing bourgeoisie was not even remotely the political ‘ruling’ class of English society. Two centuries after they had destroyed the absolute monarchy, it was still capitalist landowners and the finance bourgeoisie who con­tinued to exercise political dominance. We will consider the subsequent fate of the industrial bourgeoisie below.

The dominant oligarchy

If we now consider in more detail the dominant political frac­tions of the English ruling class as they existed prior to the 19th century Marx consistently termed them an ‘oligarchy’. They were not a class themselves but a combination of diverse frac­tions of the capitalist class bound together by certain common interests. In order to analyse the developments and limits of manouevre of this oligarchy it is therefore necessary to consider briefly Marx’s account of how its constituent elements were organised.

The fundamental basis of coexistence of capitalist lan­downers and finance and commercial bourgeois layers was that until the rise of manufacturing in the last half of the 18th cen­tury the only way to invest money made in England in trade was in land. Furthermore capitalist agriculture was by far the richest section of society. Capitalist agriculture created the money for trade, and capital made in trade was ploughed back into agriculture. In England itself the expression of this process was the great agricultural revolution of the 18th century. On the international field the expression of such policy was the crea­tion of the great overseas trading companies – above all the East India Company with its domination of India. This nexus of land, trade and finance dominated English capitalism vir­tually unchallenged for the century after the revolutions of 1642-1688.

Within this overall framework there were three areas of overwhelming importance to the oligarchy. These were foreign trade, the question of Ireland, and land subsidies and the pro­tection of the profits of capitalist farming. All required use of political power for their maintenance.

As foreign trade expanded, military power was the decisive instrument both against rival colonial powers and against threatened uprisings. In the initial period this was more to de­fend sheer plunder and exploitation used to build up estates in England than commerce itself. ‘During the whole course of the 18th century the treasures transported from India to England were gained much less by comparatively insignificant com­merce, than by the direct exploitation of that country, and by the colossal fortunes they extorted and transmitted to England.’ [18]

Later, state power became still more important with the development of commerce and manufacture and the struggle against colonial rivals. ‘When the Company of English mer­chant adventurers; who conquered India to make money out of it, began to enlarge their factories into an empire, when their competition with the Dutch and French private merchants assumed the character of national rivalry, then of course, the British government commenced meddling in the affairs of the East India Company, and the double government of India sprung up in fact if not in name.’ [19] Apart from these major in­terests there was also the fact that not insignificant groups of the ruling class relied directly on the colonial administration for income. In this situation any small divergence of interest bet­ween finance and land could largely be overcome by simple cor­ruption. [20]

The second area of the landlords’ concern was Ireland where they had crucial interests. Here Marx could simply note that: ‘Ireland is the bulwark of English landlordism. If it fell in Ireland it would fall in England… Landlordism in Ireland is maintained solely by the English army.’ [21] The third, and most direct way in which the possession of political power was used, was to maintain at an artificially high level the income of landlords. In the conditions of the 19th century, when agricultural prices should have been falling, this was achieved by the infamous Corn Laws. These, through an effective tarif, set the minimum price for cereals at an artifically high level compared to world prices. The importance of this was not simply that it created artificially large profits for landowners – for big capitalist agriculture survived the repeal of the Corn Laws easily – but that it ensured the survival of small capitalist agriculture. It thereby was the cement which held together the large landowners, who could survive international competi­tion, and the small who could not. The repeal of the Corn Laws would therefore inevitably shatter the entire landlord block and alter the political and economic equilibrium of the country – as indeed their repeal did so.

Before the great crisis of the 1840s which forced the aban­donment of agriculture protection, however, the defence of the Corn Laws was the most sacred task assigned by the lan­downers to their political representatives. As Marx put it: ‘Parliament steadily engaged in working out new and improved editions of the Corn Laws of 1815. If Corn prices proved intrac­table, if they fell despite the dictates of the Corn Laws, parliamentary committees were appointed to investigate the “agricultural distress”. As a matter of fact, the “agricultural distress” was confined, in so far as it was the subject of parliamentary investigation, to the discrepancy between the prices which the tenant farmer paid to the landowner for the land leased and the prices at which he sold his agricultural pro­ducts to the public – the discrepancy between the ground rent and the grain prices. It could therefore be abolished by the sim­ple process of lowering ground rents, the source of income of the landed aristocracy. The latter naturally prefered to “lower” grain prices by legislative means. One Corn Law was supersed­ed by another, slightly modified.’ [22]

If foreign trade, Ireland and the rent of land were the three key reasons why the landowners required to exercise political power themselves, their problem was that on every one of these key questions they were to come into conflict with the rising manufacturing bourgeoisie. Before dealing with this however it is worth analysing more carefully the political coordinates of the landowners’ policy confronted with the rise of a true industrial bourgeoisie from the second half of the 18th century onwards.

Relations with the industrial bourgeoisie

The first way in which the oligarchy could attempt to relate to the rising bourgeoisie was to ally with it, by bringing it into the old ‘compromise’, while simultaneously allowing the lan­downers to attempt to continue to exercise the undisputed dominance of political power. This policy was in particular open to the biggest oligarchs who had the greatest economic room for manouevre. As Marx put it:

‘The Whigs as well as the Tories form a fraction of the large landed property of Great Britain. Nay, the oldest, richest and most arrogant portion of the English landed property is the very nucleus of the Whig party. What, then, distinguished them from the Tories? The Whigs, are the aristocratic representatives of the bourgeoisie, of the industrial and commercial middle class. Under the conditions that the bourgeoisie should aban­don them, to an oligarchy of aristocratic families, the monopo­ly of government and the possession of office, they make to the middle class, and assist it in conquering, all those concessions which in the course of social and political development have shown themselves to be unavoidable and undelayable.’ [23]

It was the fact that they were distinguished not by represen­ting differing social classes, but only by their relation to the ris­ing industrial bourgeoisie, which gave to the Whigs and Tories their particularly unprincipled, loose, and changing attitude. The Whigs, because of their relation to an evolving social class, changed their political positions on subsidiary questions with gay abandon.

In contrast to the chameleon Whigs, the Tories had at least a small element of consistency as they more directly expressed the interests of the landowners as a whole. They initially at­tempted to maintain their power through an alliance against, instead of with, the rising sections of the industrial bourgeoisie. The fundamental aim of the Tories for a long period was main­taining in an exclusive form the old ruling bloc – which they in­herited from the Whigs.

‘The Tories recruit their army from the farmers, who have either not as yet lost the habit of following their landlords as their natural superiors, or who are economically dependent upon them or who do not see that the interest of the farmer and the interest of the landlord are no more identical than the respective interests of the borrower and the usurer. They are followed and supported by the Colonial Interest, the Shipping Interest, the State Church party, in short by all the elements which consider it necessary to safeguard their interests against the necessary results of modern manufacturing industry and against the social revolution prepared by it.’ [24]

The adherence of the Tories to the institutions of the British constitution and the Church sprang from the fact that it was those institutions which supported and embodied the political domination of the landowners. The Church and the Tory domination of it, also represented one of the few direct ways they could influence the masses. The difference of Tories and Whigs was therefore not a division between industrialists and landowners but a difference within the landowning capitalists themselves.

The break-up of the oligarchy

Having analysed the basis of the parties and institutions which formed the base of the ‘antiquated compromise’ it is also possi­ble to see how the entire structure could come apart. A blow against any of the three pillars of the oligarchy – India, Ireland, and the profits of land – would inevitably produce a crisis. If small strains arose they could be overcome by the tac­tical manouevres of the Whigs – whose diverse fractions in­deed played that role several times during the 18th century. If more fundamental contradictions arose however the Whigs would be placed in an impossible contradiction. If they resisted the demands of the rising bourgeoisie they would have to break with it and, in so doing, lose the political positions they had en­joyed by balancing between the different sections of the ruling class. If on the other hand the Whigs sided with the manufac­turing bourgeoisie then they would, by acting against the land­ed interest as a whole, undermine their own social base and thereby cumulatively destroy their positions.

The stability of the oligarchy therefore totally rested on there not being direct and severe conflict of interest between the economic needs of the industrial bourgeoisie and those advan­tages which the landowners gained from their enjoyment of political power. The ‘autonomy’ of the British political superstructure in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was bas­ed on, and limited by, a very definite relation between political power and economic and social domination. The political in­stability which set in from 1783-92, and then again from 1825 to the early 1850s, resulted from not one but all three of the old pillars of the landlord/ finance capital block coming into con­flict with the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. The joint struggle against the French revolution, from 1792-1815, provid­ed a temporary external cement that held all forces together. Once this was removed however serious conflicts of interest broke out within the capitalist class.

The first fundamental area of such conflict was over trade and the colonial empire. Previously in the key area of India there had been no direct conflict of policy between the various sections of the bourgeoisie. On the contrary there was a con­gruity of interest. As Marx put it: ‘The aristocracy wanted to conquer it, the moneyocracy to plunder it, and the millocracy to undersell it.’[25] However with the onset of the 19th century trade in manufactured goods with India, and to a lesser extent other countries, increased to a qualitative degree. This rapidly created a considerable clash of interest between the manufac­turers and the old oligarchic elements.[26] Marx notes this in the most important case as follows:

‘The East India trade had undergone very serious revolu­tions, altogether altering the position of the different class in­terests in England with regard to it… After the opening of trade in 1813 the commerce with India more than trebled in a very short time. But this was not all. The whole character of the trade was changed. Till 1813 India had been chiefly an expor­ting country, while it now became an importing one… India, the great workshop of cotton manufacture for the world, since time immemorial, became now inundated with English twists and cotton stuffs… At the same rate at which the cotton manufacturers became of vital interest for the whole social frame of Great Britain, East India became of vital interest for the British cotton manufacture … The more the industrial in­terest became dependent on the Indian market, the more it felt the necessity of creating fresh productive powers in India, hav­ing ruined her native industry. You cannot continue to inun­date a country with your manufactures unless you enable it to give you some produce in return. The industrial interest found that their trade declined instead of increasing… they found that in all attempts to apply capital to India they met with im­pediments and chicanery on the part of the Indian authorities. Thus India became the battle-field in the context of the in­dustrial interest on the one side, and of the moneyocracy and oligarchy on the other.’[27]

In this situation it was only the direct hold on political power which allowed the moneyocracy and oligarchy to main­tain their interests. Thus Marx in 1853 could note:

‘In April 1854 the Charter of the East India Company will expire and something accordingly must be done in one way or the other. The Government wanted to legislate permanently; that is, to renew the Charter for twenty years more. The Man­chester School (the representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie – JR) wanted to postpone all legislation, by prolonging the Charter at the utmost for one year. The Government said that permanent legislation was for the “best” of India. The Man­chester men replied that it was impossible for want of information. The “best” of India, and the want of information, are alike false pretences. The governing oligarchy desired, before a reformed House should meet, to secure at the cost of India, their own “best” for twenty years to come. The Manchester men desired no legislation at all in the unreformed parliament, where their views had no chance of success.’[28]

While the conflict of industrial bourgeoisie and oligarchic interest in trade was in full swing by the first half of the 19th century the complete collapse of accord over the issue of Ireland did not come until after Marx’s death. Nevertheless the beginning of the conflict could be seen even during the period in which Marx wrote.

The industrial bourgeoisie itself had little trading interest in Ireland. It however had been prepared to tolerate the situation for a long period in order to maintain its alliance with the lan­downers – who did have vital interests there. However, finally the extremes of landlord oppression in Ireland ruined it even for the few purposes the industrial bourgeoisie could find for most of it.[29] Furthermore the increasing deterioration of the situation gave rise increasingly to movements of rebellion which threatened both to undermine political stability and to have major repercussions in Britain itself.[30] The maintenance of an increasingly strong army to hold the Irish peasantry was an expense which the industrial bourgeoisie in no way felt in­clined to pay for a country from which it obtained no great pro­fit. The result was increasing support for a reform of the Irish land tenure which directly cut into the interests of the lan­downers. The seeds of the great conflict which was to culminate in the struggle over Home Rule, the split of the Liberal Party in 1886, and the ‘Curragh munity’ were already present in this clash of interests.

Corn Laws

The third, and ultimately most fearful, clash between the manufacturing bourgeoisie and the old landowning bloc was on the question of rents and food prices – the famous struggle over the Corn Laws. This in turn can only be understood if it is seen not as a clash between different class forces but on the con­trary a fight between two different sections of the capitalist class – with the specific feature of the most advanced capitalist agriculture in the world being involved.

For the smaller landowners control of political power to maintain the Corn Laws was literally a matter of life and death – a tremendous concentration of capital in agriculture took place following their repeal. For manufacturing capital the repeal of the Corn Laws, and the consequent reduction of food prices, was a crucial means of cutting the price of the reproduc­tion of labour power. As Marx put it: ‘The substantial founda­tion of the power of the Tories was the rent of land. The rent of land is regulated by the price of food. The price of food, then, was artificially maintained at a high rate by the Corn Laws. The repeal of the Corn Laws brought down the rent of land, and with the sinking rent broke down the real strength upon which the political power of the Tories reposed.’[31]

The Corn Laws in fact posed an almost insoluble dilemma not just for the Tories, as the most direct political represen­tatives of the landowners but for the political superstructure as a whole: ‘As the question… concerned “the most sacred in­terests” of the landed aristocracy – its cash income – its two factions, Tories and Whigs, were equally willing to revere the Corn Laws as fixed stars standing above their partisan strug­gle.’ [32] To the manufacturers however, far from being above the struggle, the repeal of the Corn Laws was a question of fun­damental concern, ‘to the industrial bourgeoisie the abolition of the Corn Laws was a question of life and death. Lowering production costs, expansion of foreign trade, increase in pro­fits, lessening of the main source of income and hence of power, of the landed aristocracy, enhancement of their own political power – such were the implications of the Corn Law repeal to the industrial bourgeoisie.’[33]

The Corn Laws in short represented a limit point of the dissociation between political power and economic dominance: if the political superstructure did not meet the demands of the industrial bourgeoisie then they would break politically with the landed interest and no longer accept simple political proxy representation. If on the other hand the landed interest met the demands of the manufacturing interest, then they would under­mine their own economic power and political base. This con­tradiction indeed compelled the bourgeoisie to emerge as an in­dependent political force. The manufacturing interests re­quired a complete break with the old ruling bloc in every respect; Marx summed up their political aims as follows:

‘The Free Traders (the men of the Manchester School, the Parliamentary and Financial Reformers) are the official representatives of modern English society, the representatives of that England which rules the market of the world. They represent the party of the self-conscious bourgeoisie, of in­dustrial capital striving to make available its social power as a political power as well, and to eradicate the last arrogant rem­nants of feudal society. The party is led on by the most active and most energetic portion of the English bourgeoisie – the manufacturers. What they demand is the complete and un­disguised ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the open official sub­jection of society at large under the laws of modern bourgeois production, and under the rule of those men who are the direc­tors of that production. By Free Trade they mean the unfet­tered movement of capital, freed from all political, national and religious shackles. The soil is to be a marketable commodi­ty, and the exploitation of the soil is to be carried out in accor­ding to the common commercial laws. There are to be manufac­turers of food as well as manufacturers of twist and cottons, but no longer any lords of the land.’[34]

The emergence of manufacturing capital as a direct political force naturally threatened to destroy both the major existing parties: ‘The Tories had been aristocrats ruling in the name of the aristocracy, and the Whigs aristocrats ruling in the name of the middle classes; but the middle classes having assumed the rule in their own name, the business of the Whigs is gone.’[35]

Marx in fact considered the collapse of the Whigs doubly inevitable. Not merely did the bourgeoisie no longer have need of them, but once the landed interests were decisively weakened the old balance between landed interest and manufacturers on which the Whigs had rested would be thrown into fundamental disequilibrium. ‘It is clear that from the moment when the land­ed aristocracy is no longer able to maintain its position as an in­dependent power, to fight as an independent party, for the government position, in short from the moment when the Tories are definitively overthrown, British history no longer has any room for the Whigs.’[36] In short both Tories and Whigs were doomed.

It was in these circumstances that Peel moved to repeal the Corn Laws and broke up the Tory Party in the process.[37] There is little doubt that this is the single most important decision ever taken by the British bourgeoisie. Once it was carried out the en­tire mechanism of British capitalism for over a century was set in place. Only today are the effects of Peel’s fundamental act being reversed.

The retreat of the bourgeoisie

After the repeal of the Corn Law the scene seemed set in Marx’s eyes for fierce political clashes to attempt to right the dise­quilibrium in the political superstructure. Apart from the an­ticipated bourgeois onslaught it appeared clear to Marx that the landed interest would use the monopoly of direct political power which they still possessed to rigorously reassert their position and even to make attempts at ‘counter-revolution’. Marx analysed in 1852 the policy of the Tories as follows: ‘What then are they trying to do? To maintain a political power, the social foundation of which has ceased to exist. And how can this be achieved? By nothing short of a Counter­revolution, that is to say, by a reaction of State against society.’ [38]

Marx had no doubt as to the outcome of any such moves by the Tories but considered it inevitable that they would provoke a severe political crisis, which could clarify the position not on­ly of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie but of all classes. ‘They (the industrial bourgeoisie) cannot avoid fulfilling their mis­sion, battering to pieces old England, the England of the past; and the very moment when they will have conquered exclusive political dominion, when political dominion and economical supremacy will be united in the same hands, when, therefore the struggle against capital will no longer be distinct from the struggle against the existing government – from that very mo­ment will date the social revolution of England.’[39]

Any real clash between landowners and bourgeoisie would also lead to a movement of the proletariat for, given the domination of parliament and the state apparatus by the landed element, only massive extra-parliamentary upheaval could force laws to be passed against the interests of the previously dominant political layers. The very fact that the normal political processes were not open to the bourgeoisie meant that the mobilisation of the masses against the landed elements had indeed become part of standard political practice. As Marx concluded: ‘No important innovation, no decisive measure has ever been carried out in this country without pressure from without. Either the opposition needed such pressure against the government or the government needed it against the opposi­tion. By pressure from without the Englishman means great extra-parliamentary popular demonstrations, which naturally cannot be staged without the active participation of the work­ing classes.’[40]

This had clearly been the case in the repeal of the Corn Laws: ‘Who repealed the Corn Laws? Assuredly not the voters who had elected a Protectionist Parliament, still less the Protec­tionist Parliament itself, but only and exclusively the pressure from without.’[41] Faced with this actual or threatening pressure the only way the landowners could attempt to defend their posi­tion was in turn to seek to gain support among sections of the working class.

‘The landed aristocracy having suffered a defeat from the bourgeoisie by the passing of the Reform Bill of 1831, and be­ing assailed “in their most sacred interests” by the cry of the manufacturers for Free Trade and the abolition of the Corn Laws, resolved to resist the middle classes by espousing the cause and claims of the working men against their masters, and especially by rallying around their demands for the limitation of factory labour. So called philanthropic lords were then at the head of all Ten-Hour meetings… as they feel the approach of their final struggle with the men of the Manchester School, they are again trying to get hold of the short time movement.’[42] This policy of course found its final conclusion in Disraelian Toryism.

Marx was well aware however that the engagement of the working masses in action by either party, however, carried the immediate chance that the masses might develop their own goals and aims and that the movement might get totally out of the control of the ruling class. This was particularly the case in a country in which there was no reactionary peasant class and where class developments and antagonisms were more advanc­ed than in any other state. The beginnings of such an ‘undesirable’ dynamic had been clearly visible even at the time of the passing of the Reform Act in 1832: ‘The ejection of Well­ington from office, because he had declared against Reform; the French Revolution of July (1830); the threatening political unions formed by the middling and working classes at Birm­ingham, Manchester, London and elsewhere; the rural war; the “bonfires” all over the most fertile counties of England – all these circumstances absolutely forced the Whigs to propose some measure of Reform.’[43]

The dangers of any mobilisation of the working masses for political action became even greater later in the 19th century when the social structure had evolved still further, when it was the employers themselves who directly had to do the mobilis­ing, and when, most importantly, the working class in Chartism had already begun to appear as an independent force.

As a concrete example of this process Marx gives an account of an 1855 meeting by the radical bourgeoisie to attempt to gain support for a ‘National and Constitutional Association’ whose aim was to be ‘agitating for the overthrow of the oligarchic regime’. Here Marx notes that it was declared that there were: ‘Practical men of every class, and especially of the middle classes, with all the attributes for governing the country’, and that, ‘this gauche allusion to the particular claims of the middle class was received with loud hissing,’ following which, ‘Mr Murrough, Member of Parliament, now stepped forward, but after considerable opposition was compelled to make way for George Harrison (a worker and a Chartist from Nottingham). “This movement,” said Harrison, “is an attempt by the middle classes to gain control of the government, divide among themselves the places and the pensions and establish a worse oligarchy than that now in existence.” Then he read aloud an amendment wherein he denounced equally the landed and financial aristocracy as enemies of the people.’[44]

The existence of a mass proletariat, and the degree of advancement of capitalism, therefore, by a curious dialectic, led to a situation in which the industrial bourgeoisie was scared of practically any major reform which might involve a major struggle or opening the floodgates to the working masses. The result was exactly to avoid a clash between the different sections of the bourgeoisie. The fear created by the threat of mass social pressure of the working class meant that the bourgeoisie came more and more to compromise with the landed aristocracy in­stead of rushing forward against it. This again had been clearly visible even in the struggle over the Reform Act: ‘In 1830 the bourgeoisie preferred to renew the compromise with the landed aristocracy rather than make a compromise with the mass of the English people.’[45] This set the model for future political development. Instead of radical measures shattering the power of the landed interest, an extremely timid and narrow com­promise was reached: ‘Never, perhaps, had a mighty and to all appearances, successful popular movement turned into such a mock result. Not only were the working classes altogether ex­cluded from any political influence, but the middle classes themselves discovered that Lord Althorp, the soul of the Reform Cabinet, had not used a rhetorical figure when telling his Tory adversaries that, “the Reform Bill was the most aristocratic act ever offered to this nation”.’[46]

Russell, who had introduced the Act, ‘justified the extreme length to which the “Reform Bill had gone” on the plea of bar­ring the possibility of ever going further. He stated coolly that, “the object of the Reform Bill was to increase the predominance of the landed interest, and it was intended as a permament settlement of a great constitutional question”.’[47] Marx concluded:

‘The English middle class are hemmed in by the aristocracy on the one hand and the working classes on the other… the same industrial wave which has borne the middle class up against the aristocracy, is now… bearing the working classes up against the middle classes. Just as the middle class inflict blows upon the aristocracy, so will they receive them from the working classes. It is the instinctive perception of this fact that already fetters the action of that class against the aristocracy. The recent political agitations of the working classes have taught the middle class to hate and fear overt political movements.’ [48]

It was a situation, where the bourgeoisie was more scared of the rising power of the working class than it was concerned about its contradictions with the landowners and other domi­nant political forces, that led to the conservatism and lack of radicalism in the industrial bourgeoisie itself. Thus in the case of the Corn Laws:

‘Having obtained, in 1846, a grand victory over the landed aristocracy by the repeal of the Corn Laws, they were satisfied with following up the material advantages of the victory, while they neglected to draw the necessary political and economical conclusions from it… During all the time from 1846 to 1852 they exposed themselves to ridicule by their battle cry: Broad principles and practical (read small) measures. And why all this? Because in every violent movement they are obliged to ap­peal to the working class. And if the aristocracy is their vanishing opponent the working class is their arising enemy. They prefer to compromise with the vanishing opponent rather than to strengthen the arising enemy, to whom the future belongs… Therefore they strive to avoid every forcible colli­sion with the aristocracy.’[49]

Although occasionally the bourgeoisie might like to threaten the landlords with the working masses, it in no sense actually wanted to mobilise the latter. Thus talking of the methods of the industrial bourgeoisie, Marx concluded: ‘Faced with the present oligarchy one would like to speak in the name of the people but at the same time to avoid the people appearing in person when one calls.’[50] The bourgeoisie understood this as well as Marx and feared that, ‘the working men of England (will) arise anew, menacing the middle classes at the very time that the middle classes are finally driving the aristocracy from power.’[51] From this growing cowardice of the bourgeoisie Marx derived an extremely radical, and far reaching conclusion – that the bourgeoisie was incapable of destroying the remnants of the old dominant political layers: ‘The feudalism of England will not perish beneath the scarcely perceptible dissolving pro­cesses of the middle class: the honour of such a victory is reserv­ed for the working class.’[52]

The greatest capitalist power in the world had produced an industrial bourgeoisie which.was a political mouse.

In conclusion

Following the political crisis of the 1840s British capitalist society entered into a quite new phase of its development – the rise of British imperialism in its full scope. Marx’s and Engels’ analysis of this forms a separate subject. They however never changed their basic views on the question – as Engels made clear in his classic England in 1845 and in 1885 which forms the bulk of his 1892 introduction to The Condition of the Working Class in England. Britain, in short, entered its imperialist phase with an industrial bourgeoisie which had become politically helpless. Most of subsequent British capitalist history falls into place once that fundamental fact is grasped.

This line of argument is of course one which the British Left does not like. It formed the central point of EP Thompson’s famous attack on Perry Anderson’s Origins of the Present Crisis. But for what it is worth, by a rather different mechanism than the one Anderson proposes, it was most definitely the position which Marx himself held.

More important than invoking a name on one side or other of a dispute however is an understanding of Marx’s own con­tribution to the analysis of English history – of which we have only been able to deal with a small part here. It is indeed a superb achievement. A sustained and theorised analysis of the entire history of a society about which he never even had the time to write one sustained book apart from the economic analyses of Capital. Judged not by the authority of a name but simply by its penetration and grasp it is the most original and coherent account of English history ever produced.

JOHN ROSS is author of Thatcher and Friends: Anatomy of the Tory Party which can be read here.


References in the footnotes below refer to

On Britain – Marx and Engels on Britain, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow 1962.

Articles on Britain – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Articles on Britain, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971.

On Colonialism – Marx and Engels – On Colonialism, Pro­gress Publishers, Moscow 1968.

On IrelandMarx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971.


1 ‘The history of expropriation (of agricultural labour) in different countries assumes different aspects and runs through different phases in different orders of succession and at different periods. In England alone, which we take as our example, has it the classic form.’ Capital Vol 1, p716.

2 Marx, a review of Guizot’s book, ‘Why has the English Revolution been successful?’ in Marx and Engels On Britain, chapter 10, p254.

3 ‘In England serfdom had practically disappeared in the last part of the 14th century. The immense majority of the population consisted then, and to a still greater extent, in the 15th century, of free peasant proprietors, whatever was the feudal title under which their right of property was hidden.’ Capital Vol 1, p717.

4 ‘The prelude of the revolution which laid the foundation of the capitalist mode of production was played in the last third of the 15th century, and the first decade of the 16th. A mass of free proletarians was hurled on the labour market… Although the royal power… in its strife after absolute sovereignty forcibly hastened on the dissolution of these bands of retainers, it was by no means the sole cause of the crea­tion of the proletariat. In insolent conflict with King and Parliament the great feudal lords created an incomparably greater proletariat by the forcible driving of the peasantry from the land, to which the latter has the same feudal right as the lord himself, and by the usurpation of the common lands. The rapid rise of the Flemish wool manufacturers, and the corresponding rise in the price of wool in England, gave the direct impulse to these evictions.’ Capital Vol 1, p718.

5 ‘The process of forcible expropriation of the people received in the 16th century a new and frightful impulse from the Reformation, and from the consequent colossal spoilation of the church property… The property of the church formed the religious bulwark of the traditional conditions of landed property. With its fall these were no longer possible.’ Capital Vol 1, p722.

6 Capital Vol 1, p744.

7 Capital Vol 1, p718.

8 Capital Vol 1, p733.

9 Capital Vol 3, p799.

10 Review of Guizot, On Britain, Ch 10, p254.

11 Marx attributed the overthrow of the restored Stuart monarchy to the ‘fear of the new big landed proprietors created by the reformation that Catholicism might be re-established, in which event they would naturally have to restore all the lands of which they had robbed the church.’ Ibid, p254. ‘After the restoration of the Stuarts, the landed proprietors carried by legal means an act of usurpation effected everywhere on the Continent without any legal formality. They abolished the feudal tenure of the land… The “glorious revolution” brought into power, along with William of Orange, the landlord and the capitalist appropriators of surplus value. They inaugurated the new era by practising on a colossal scale thefts of state lands, thefts that hitherto had been managed more modestly. These estates were given away, sold at a ridiculous figure or even annexed to private lands by direct seizure… The Crown lands thus fraudulently appropriated, together with the robbery of the Church estates, as far as these had not been lost during the republican revolution, form the basis of the today princely domains of the English oligarchy. The bourgeois capitalists favoured the operation with the view, among others, to promoting free trade in land, to extending the domain of modern agriculture on the large scale farm system, and to increasing their supply of the free agricultural proletarians ready to hand.’ Capital Vol 1, p724.

12 ‘First manufacture developed under the constitutional monarchy to a hitherto unknown extent, only to make room subsequently, for big industry, the steam engine and gigantic factories. A more colossal bourgeoisie arises. While the old bourgeoisie fights the French Revolu­tion, the new one conquers the world market.’ Review of Guizot, On Britain, Ch 10, p255.

13 The Crisis in England and the British Constitution, On Britain, p243.

14 Engels, Preface to the Peasant War in Germany, Marx and Engels Works (ME), p241.

15 The Class Struggles in France, p28.

16 The Crisis in England, On Britain, p243.

17 ‘The Whigs as well as the Tories form a fraction of the large land­ed property of Great Britain.’ ‘The Elections in Britain – Whigs and Tories’, On Britain, p354. To some extent Marx appears to have con­sidered this a stage in the development of most countries – perhaps because of the old state apparatus giving skill to the old ruling classes or perhaps simply due to the importance of agriculture in the economy. ‘Landlords everywhere exert considerable, and in England even over­whelming, influence on legislation.’ Capital Vol 3, p626. Marx con­sidered the situation in England an extreme case as far as the influence of the landlords was concerned, even after the passing of the Corn Laws.

18 The East India Company – Its History and Results, Articles on Britain, p179.

19 ‘The Union between the Constitutional Monarchy and the monopolising monied interests, between the Company of East India and the “glorious” revolution of 1688 was fostered by the same force by which the liberal interests and a liberal dynasty have at all times and in all countries met and combined, by the force of corruption.’ The East India Company, Articles on Britain, p174.

20 The East India Company, Articles on Britain, p174.

21 Confidential Communication, On Colonialism, p258.

22 Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p355.

23 ‘The interests and principles which they represent… do not belong to the Whigs; they are forced on them by the development of the in­dustrial and commercial class, the Bourgeoisie. After 1688 we find them united with the Bankocracy, just then arising into importance, as we find them in 1846 united with the millocracy.’ Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p355.

24 Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p353.

25 The Future Results of the British Rule in India, On Colonialism, p83.

26 Marx gives the following figures: ‘From 1818 to 1836 the export of twist from Great Britain to India rose in the proportion of 1 to 5200. In 1824 the export of British muslins to India hardly amounted to 1,000,000 yards while in 1837 it surpassed 64,000,000 yards.’ The British Rule in India, On Colonialism, p38.

27 The East India Company, Articles on Britain, p181.

28 English Property – Strikes – The Turkish Question – India, On Colonialism, p42. The unseemly speed was accounted for by the fact that, ‘The English oligarchy have a presentiment of the approaching end of their days of glory, and they have a justifiable desire to conclude… a treaty (to continue the old position of the East India Company) with English legislation, that even in the case of England’s escaping soon from their weak and rapacious hands, they shall still retain for themselves and their associates the privilege of plundering India for the space of twenty years.’ Affairs in Holland-Denmark-Conversion of the British Debt – India – Turkey and Russia, On Colonialism, p28.

29 ‘English modern industry, in general, relied upon two pivots equally monstrous. The one was the potato as the only means of feeding Ireland and a great part of the English working class. This pivot was swept away by the potato disease and the subsequent Irish catastrophe.’ The British Cotton Trade, On Colonialism, p250.

30 The War Question – British Population and Trade Returns – Doings of Parliament, On Ireland, p68.

31 Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p353.

32 Lord John Russell, On Britain, p460. 33 Ibid, p461.

34 The Chartists, On Britain, p360.

35 Political Parties in England, Articles on Britain, p296.

36 Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p356.

37 ‘Peel returned to office and abolished the Corn Laws. His act crushed the Tory Party and broke it up.’ Lord John Russell, On Bri­tain, p462.

38 Whigs and Tories, On Britain, p353.

39 The Chartists, On Britain, p362.

40 A London Workers’ Meeting, On Britain, p478.

41 Corruption at Elections, On Britain, p376.

42 Parliamentary Debates – The Clergy Against Socialism – Star­vation, On Britain, p382.

43 Lord John Russell, On Britain, p452.

44 A Meeting, On Britain, p229.

45 The Crisis in England and the British Constitution, On Britain, p424.

46 Lord John Russell, On Britain, p452.

47 Ibid, p454.

48 The English Middle Classes, On Britain, p218. (My emphasis)

49 The Chartists, On Britain, p360. (My emphasis). It is when this point is grasped that it is also possible to see how such an outmoded group as the Whigs could continue to exist well into the 19th century. Their precise role was to reconcile the landlord element with the rising bourgeoisie under conditions in which both wished to unite against the common enemy of the proletariat. ‘In 1831 they extended the political portion of reform as it was necessary in order not to leave the middle class entirely dissatisfied; after 1846 they confined their Free Trade measures so far as was necessary in order to save the landed aristocracy the greatest possible amount of privileges.’ Whigs and Tories, On Bri­tain, p356. Even after passing the Corn Law repeal they still attempted to carry out this role. Thus in the 1852 elections, ‘Whigs, Free Traders and Peelites coalesced to oppose the Tories’ Ibid, p351. This position however was made ultimately untenable by the fact of the declining economic base of the landowners and by the emergence of indepen­dent, and increasingly conservative, representatives of the bourgeoisie. In consequence, with no such role of mediator to play, the social base of the Whigs asserted itself. Thus by 1858 Marx could note: ‘Absorp­tion of the Whig faction into the Tory faction, and their common metamorphosis into the party of the aristocracy, as opposed to the new middle class party acting under its own chiefs, under its own banners, with its own watchwords – such is the consummation we are now witnessing in England.’ Political Parties in England, On Britain, p296. This was consciously prepared by the Tories: ‘In order to keep the Whigs out of office, the Tories will yield to the encroachments of the middle class party till they have worried out Whig patience and con­vinced these oligarchs that, in order to save the interests of their order, they must merge in the conservative ranks and foresake their tradi­tional pretensions to represent the liberal interest or form a power of their own.’ Ibid, Articles on Britain, p296.

50 A Meeting, On Britain, p 232.

51 Palmerston and the English Oligarchy, On Britain, p426.

52 The English Middle Class, Articles on Britain, p220.


This article first appeared in International, Volume 8 No 1 & 2 Jan-April 1983