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This Revolutionary Thinker is Still Waiting for the Draft British Road to Socialism

Marx 200Marx, London and the First International

Marx is mostly remembered as a revolutionary thinker, but, as Professor MARY DAVIS explains, his theory was rooted in a lifetime of political activity

KARL MARX lived permanently in London from 1849 until his death.


London, and to a lesser extent Brussels, was the place of refuge for radicals fleeing repression after the European revolutions of 1830 and 1848.


The city thus became the hub of revolutionary émigré activity.


Britain did not experience similar uprisings to those in Europe at the time. However, this did not indicate the absence of mass struggle.


Between the mid 1830s-1850s, Britain, the first industrial nation, witnessed the development of its most significant workers’ movement of the 19th century, Chartism.


This was a mass movement of all subdivisions of the working class affected by industrialisation. It created, in 1842, the world’s first workers’ political party, the National Charter Association.


By 1848 Chartism’s political orientation was moving towards socialism under the leadership of Ernest Jones and George Julian Harney.


The latter was editor from 1843 of the mass circulation Chartist paper the Northern Star.


Engels, who had had been sent to Manchester in 1842 to manage his father’s cotton mill, was a contributor to the Northern Star and in contact with the Chartist leadership.


In 1845, Harney established the Society of Fraternal Democrats, an international organisation composed of left-wing chartists and political refugees.


Its motto was “all men are brothers.” It has been argued that this organisation, after it adopted its constitution in 1847, was the prototype of the First International formed 19 years later.


This was the political milieu Marx encountered when he visited London in 1845, following his stay with Engels in Manchester.


In Manchester Marx saw at first hand the indescribable horrors of the factory system that Engels had described in his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844.


When in London Marx met the Chartist leaders and, on his return two years later, he attended a meeting of the Fraternal Democrats.


The following day he was an invited guest at the Second Congress of the Communist League.


The newly formed League requested Marx write their manifesto.

Together with Engels this was written and issued in 1848 in German as the Communist Manifesto.


It was translated into English in 1850 by Helen McFarlane, a socialist Chartist, and published in Harney’s new journal the Red Republican.


Thus, before he moved to London permanently, Marx’s links with left-wing Chartism and émigré organisations, contextualised in the harsh reality of industrial Britain, was to prove an important source for his theoretical work and political activity.


However, by the 1850s, it was clear to Marx that the conditions that had stimulated revolutionary activity in the first half of the 19th century had now changed.


Capitalism had entered a more stable phase. This was particularly true of its most powerful exemplar, Britain. To a lesser extent, similar conditions prevailed in other European countries.


By mid-century the volatile boom/slump economic conditions characterising the early period of English industrialisation had given way to a new phase of stability.


Britain was by now “the workshop of the world.” Its manufactured goods, based on its staple industries — coal, cotton and engineering — dominated world markets.


This had an impact on Britain’s workers.


It privileged a section of the labour force — the now higher-paid skilled/craft workers in the industries associated with the 20 or so years of “boom.”


Contemporaries, and later Lenin, described these workers as “labour aristocrats.”


Thus in an observable way, a material basis was created for a clear division within the working class.


This was exemplified by the formation of “new model unions.”


Compared to the previous period these were a much more moderate form of male-only trade unionism.


The slogan of the Engineers union (ASE), “defence not defiance” characterised their ideological agenda. Surprisingly, however, it was these very unions that were the impetus behind the creation of the First International.


After the defeat of the revolutionary upsurge of 1848 and the demise of such organisations as Chartism and the Communist League, Marx judged that the possibility of further mass insurrection was unlikely.


He used this temporary hiatus to concentrate on writing and research especially for volume one of Capital.


In his view any new form of international had to be solidly based within the working class.


Thus he did not dismiss the reformist British trade unions and was especially encouraged by their international outlook.


This outlook was displayed by trade union support for such events as the Italian Risorgimento, the Union side in the American Civil War and the Polish rising of 1863.


It was this latter affair which inspired George Odger, the secretary of the London Trades Council, to propose the formation of an association to promote peace and international co-operation among workers of all countries.


This led to the formation of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) at a meeting September 1864 in St Martin’s Hall, London, attended by over 2,000 people.


In effect this was the founding meeting of what is now called the First International. Its headquarters were established in London.

Marx was present at this first meeting although he did not speak.

Nonetheless his reputation was such that he was asked to write the inaugural address of the IWA which was adopted at its first congress in Geneva in 1866.


The address displays a recognition by Marx that the IWA, due to its politically diverse composition, could not be a socialist organisation.


The address was thus adapted to his audience. In a letter to Bolte in 1871, Marx described the IWA thus.


“The International was founded in order to replace the socialism or semi-socialism of the sects by a real organisation of the working class for struggle.”


He went on to say that sects exist when the working class is not ready, but once it is “mature” (Marx’s word) sects play a reactionary role.


Thus Marx regarded the support of English trade unions as vitally important.


However, as its history shows, the IWA was beset by a struggle against sects, notably, the anti-strike “mutualist” French Proudhonists, the German Lassalleans (“iron law of wages”) and the anarchists led by Bakunin.


This struggle was played out in general council meetings and annual congresses of the IWA from 1866-72.


Congresses were not held in 1870-1 due to the Franco-Prussian war, the Paris Commune and its brutal aftermath.


The IWA did not survive its move to New York in 1874, so effectively its last Congress was 1872. Marx’s Civil War in France was written and published in many languages immediately after the fall of the Commune.


It achieved the highest circulation of any of his writings during his lifetime.


The IWA, however, lost momentum after 1870, particularly due to the waning interest of the English trade unionists.


Their declining involvement had been apparent since 1867 when they were enfranchised by the Second Reform Act and consequently became increasingly involved in liberal parliamentary politics.


However, until 1870, English trade unionists were by far the most dominant force numerically in the IWA.


This was a strength but potentially an ideological weakness which was revealed at a session of the general council on April 1865.


One of the influential members of the council, John Weston, a carpenter and Owenite socialist, proposed that the council should discuss the following questions:


“Can the social and material prospects of the working class be in general improved by wage increases?


Do not the efforts of the trade unions to secure increases have a harmful effect on other branches of industry?” (Introduction to Wages, Price and Profit.)

Marx responded.


He delivered a withering critique of “citizen” Weston’s bourgeois economics in an address to two sessions of the general council in 1865.


However, the address was only discovered after Marx’s death by his daughter Eleanor Marx and was not published until 1898. Its title is Wages (Value), Price and Profit.

In it Marx elaborates in a summary and coherent form the main argument underlying Capital, especially his theory of surplus value and its relation to workers’ wages.


After the collapse of the First International, Marx recognised that the centre of gravity of the working class movement had moved to Germany.


London and the British Library remained his base. Clearly, London as an international hub, the advance of industrial capitalism in England and its factory proletariat had been his political, economic and ideological inspiration.


Marx’s life demonstrated his engagement with practice and theory, but more importantly it exhibited the unity of the two.


A rare achievement.


Mary Davis is visiting professor of labour history at Royal Holloway University of London and a trustee of the Marx Memorial Library.

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