Ralph Fox

Marx, Engels and Lenin on the British Workers’ Movement

Source: Ralph Fox: A Writer in Arms
First Published: Communist Review, March 1931.
Publisher: Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Proofreader: Chris Clayton
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2006). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

WE speak loosely of the Chartist “movement,” but few of us look on Chartism as a movement; that is, as a developing class struggle having definite origins, having relations to the changing class conditions of the England of that day, having definite aims. Yet this was precisely how Marx and Engels regarded Chartism.

They themselves were “Chartists.” Their own political tactics they based largely on the experience of the Chartists. They studied every development of Chartism, had opinions on every Chartist leader. Yet no one has ever troubled to find out what were the ideas of the founders of revolutionary Communism upon revolutionary Chartism and its leaders. Indeed, in our press, in our literature we find ideas which are absolutely the opposite of those of Marx and Engels on Chartism.

Engels, who from the end of 1842 was closely connected with the Chartists, saw the movement in its beginning as a revolutionary democratic movement, the natural development of the Radical movement of 1793 to 1799, which developed on a mass scale at the close of the war with France in 1815.

The English working class was the best organized, the most advanced in Europe. If the six demands of its Charter were those of the democratic revolution and not of the social revolution, the workers were not long in making it clear that they were fighting for the democratic revolution, not in order to pull chestnuts out of the fire for a cowardly bourgeoisie, but in order to establish themselves, the workers, as the ruling class in order to start the social revolution. The day had passed when the democratic revolution could be realized in England without leading directly to the emancipation of the proletariat.

“The whole struggle of the workers against the factory owners,” writes Marx in 1848, “which has already lasted eighty years, a struggle which began with machine-breaking and then went through the stages of combinations, separate attacks on the persons and property of factory-owners and the few workers devoted to the factory-owners, through more or less big revolts, through the insurrections of 1839 and 1842, has developed into the most conscious class struggle which the world has ever seen—the whole of this class struggle of the Chartists, the organized party of the proletariat, against the organized State power of the bourgeoisie .... is a social civil war.”

A little earlier Marx had written that in the Chartists the workers had formed a political party whose fighting slogan could in no case merely be “monarchy or republic?” but “the rule of the working class or the rule of the bourgeoisie?”

At this time all the political efforts of the bourgeoisie were concentrated on winning free trade through the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Chartists, the real banner-bearers of the democratic revolution, were never for a moment deceived by the efforts of their class enemies to draw them into this “fight for freedom.” They fought equally hard on two fronts against both the free trade exploiters and the protectionist exploiters. The Chartists forced the Corn Law Leaguers to hold their meetings by ticket in guarded halls, drove them off the streets and out of their press. They ironically compared their liberal words with their reactionary practice. “Everyone knows,” Marx said, “that in England the struggle between Liberals and Democrats takes the name of the struggle between Free Traders and Chartists.”

What were the personal relations of Marx and Engels to the leaders of Chartism? Max Beer and Rothstein would have us believe they were quite uncritical, or that where they criticized they were wrong. Groves follows them in making idols of Harney and Jones, while J. P. Lilburne accepts the Beer-Rothstein estimate of O’Brien.

O’Connor they rightly considered a brilliant agitator and journalist, but his political rôle was reactionary. “A true representative of old England. By his nature he is conservative and fosters a fully determined hatred both to industrial progress and to revolution. All his ideas are thoroughly permeated with a patriarchal petty-bourgeois spirit.” O’Connor in many ways resembled Cobbett. He represented the revolt of the dying hand-weaver, or pre-industrial-revolution England against the triumph of the new industrial bourgeoisie.

O’Brien, the other petty-bourgeois Chartist leader, Marx and Engels always considered the least talented of the Chartists. Engels told Belfort Bax that O’Brien’s Rise, Progress and Phases of Human Slavery was the least valuable production of the whole movement. As a politician O’Brien was beneath contempt, moved by personal spites and intrigues and even in his best period, that of the first Convention, having no fixed policy. He was a Roman Catholic, a currency crank and land reformer. His followers in the First International, who believed in land nationalization, were sometimes used by Marx as a counter to the trade union element. Some O’Brienites survived into the S.D.F., and Hyndman praised them extravagantly. His ideas on the class struggle were only those of the Chartist movement in general and had no particular influence on Marx and Engels.

Harney, who was a real revolutionary and a close collaborator of Marx and Engels, was also judged by them very critically. Once even they called him, not without reason, “a lousy little fellow.” Harney was something of a phraseur. He never took the leading part in the Chartist movement his abilities entitled him to, and he lacked political sense. After 1848 he became a worshipper of Louis Blanc, and in a few years had become a petty-bourgeois radical. He sent a subscription to the First International, but never worked for it.

Ernest Jones was a man of more serious calibre. In 1848 and later Marx and Engels saw in him the leader of the English workers. When ten years later he gave up the struggle Marx wrote to Weidermeyer, “Imagine an army whose general on the day of battle deserts to the enemy.” He never wrote with such bitterness of Harney, for Harney’s desertion was of less importance. Even after Jones in 1859 became a Radical Engels continued his friend. He refused to join the International but asked for its support in his election at Manchester. “One more of the old guard,” Marx wrote sadly on his death. “Certainly his bourgeois phrases were only hypocrisy,” Engels wrote in answer. “Here in Manchester there is no one to replace him among the workers .... He was the only EDUCATED Englishman among the politicians who stood fully on our side.”

Jones, they knew, “was no Harney.” He was the greatest leader the English workers produced in the nineteenth century, and it is not without significance that he was also the most revolutionary, the most Marxist. He was broken by circumstance and by his own ambition, but to the end remained an honest man, respected even by those he had betrayed. Marx would not speak at the memorial meeting arranged by the Reform League in 1869 in Trafalgar Square, but he nevertheless bitterly regretted the loss of Jones.

There are many lessons to be learned to-day from a Marxist estimate of the Chartist movement of the past, its class relationships, its mistakes, its triumphs. There is nothing to be gained by concealing the Marxist viewpoint, either on the movement as a whole or its different leaders.

* * *

In 1881 the London Trades Council began to publish a weekly paper, the Labour Standard, edited by George Shipton. For many weeks the leading articles were written by Frederick Engels, and they are the first open summons to the organization of a new independent class political party of the workers since the days of Chartism. Even before Hyndman, before the Democratic Federation, Engels was using the workers’ press to try to organize a mass political party.

The old trade unionism, with its slogan “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work,” was useless, wrote Engels. Economic struggle “is a vicious circle from which there is no issue. The working class remains where it was and what our Chartist forefathers were not afraid to call it, a class of wage slaves.” The position of the unions must change. “They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organizations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the unions of special trades there must spring up a general union, a political organization of the working class as a whole.” “In a political struggle of class against class, organization is the most important weapon.”

The articles were premature. Engels broke with Shipton, but he had foreseen the future development of the English proletariat and given it the necessary guidance for when the hour should strike. England’s industrial monopoly was then on the wane. Engels hoped it would break the last link binding the English working class to the English middle class, “the common working of a national monopoly.” The monopoly went, but another, unforeseen, had taken its place—the common working of the colonial monopoly. Only to-day, when the second monopoly is becoming a brake on the development of the workers, is forcing large sections of them into poverty and unemployment, has the final stage of their organization as a class, the mass Communist Party, been reached.

But out of the crisis in English capitalism in the ’eighties and ’nineties arose the second great English workers’ movement. The break-up of the Tory and Liberal parties, the pressure of the Irish revolutionary movement, the class struggle at home, all pointed to the present coming on the scene of English politics of a third political force, that of the proletariat.

In 1881 Henry Mayers Hyndman joined in a general move to form “a proletarian radical party,” and succeeded in capturing the movement and turning it into the “Democratic Federation,” with a Radical programme and Socialist leanings. Hyndman fancied himself the British Lassalle. As Lassalle flirted with Bismarck he flirted with Beaconsfield and Lord Randolph Churchill, the leaders of Tory democracy. Churchill promised to adopt his programme, the radical Joseph Chamberlain refused. Marx, whom Hyndman knew at this time, considered him “an emptyheaded fellow” with a “doubtful political mission.”

Ambition was Hyndman’s chief characteristic. He turned his society into the Social-Democratic Federation and began to plan an “independent” rôle in politics, putting forward candidates with Tory money. When this happened in 1884, on Engels’s advice the honest Socialist elements left the S.D.F. and formed the Socialist League (Eleanor Marx, Aveling, William Morris, Bax, etc.). Hyndman began to organize “stunts” with the unemployed, which had a certain temporary success but which Engels roundly condemned as substitutes for serious mass work. Engels proved right, for the S.D.F., after the unemployed agitation died down, were left without influence or contact with the workers.

The Socialist League proved no more successful than the S.D.F., and Engels refused to identify himself with it. Sectarianism and fractionalism he hated. He was always urging the serious elements in all the sects, the Avelings, Burns, Tom Mann, to get down to the organization of the masses and the daily struggle.

Hyndman and the S.D.F. never ceased to attack Engels bitterly. Their own tactics remained half those of Tory Chartism, half those of the French Possibilists, the reactionary reformist wing of French Socialism of that day. At the same time they used lavishly Marxian and revolutionary phrases. Meanwhile the movement became more and more sectarian. Champion left the S.D.F. and set up a real Tory-Socialist group around the Labour Elector, which had mass contacts and aimed at forming a Labour Party under Tory dominance to draw the workers away from Liberalism.

The Fabians were formed by the intellectuals in the movement, Shaw, Webb, Bland, etc. They started a paper, the People’s Press, and attempted to slip into the workers’ organizations, but failed. “The Fabians are a band of careerists,” wrote Engels. “Fear of the revolution is their fundamental principle.” Either they must remain “officers without soldiers,” wrote Engels in 1893, or else permit themselves to be absorbed in the growing mass movement by pressure of their working-class members. The first, as Engels desired and foresaw, happened and the workers left the Fabians.

All these sects sickened Engels. He urged his own friends, Eleanor Marx, the most brilliant and devoted personage in the movement, and her husband, Edward Aveling, to go direct to the masses. They went to the Radical clubs of London, particularly of the East End, and by their agitation there laid the foundation for the first mass independent movement of the workers. They took part in the strikes and struggles of the workers which signalized the rise of the new unionism. Aveling wrote the Gasworkers’ Constitution, in which Socialism was for the first time mentioned as the ultimate aim of trade unionism. Eleanor was on the union executive and an active organizer and strike leader. Both together joined in the great dockers’ fight of 1889, when the S.D.F. officially stood aloof because the dockers would not “fight under the Red Flag.”

Engels encouraged the formation by Aveling of the Eight Hours League, to organize the strong desire among all sections of the workers to win the eight-hour day. Tom Mann took a leading part in the work of the League, which soon had immense influence, especially in London. It mobilized over 100,000 workers to its May Day demonstrations and was, with its affiliated Socialist parties and trade unions, the forerunner of the Labour Party. It was Engels’s hope that it would become a Labour Party with a revolutionary Marxist leadership, but Aveling’s personal weaknesses, though counterbalanced by the devotion and ability of Eleanor Marx, prevented the fulfilment of this tremendous task. Had Eleanor lived to rally and educate a leadership British Labour would have had a more glorious story.

In 1893 the mass movement for a workers’ party had advanced to such an extent that the various currents met at Bradford and united in the Independent Labour Party. The Fabians and S.D.F. remained aloof. Aveling joined and Engels hoped the Marxians might succeed in curbing ambitious opportunists like Keir Hardie by using the masses against them. He was critical of the new party, but hoped that the healthy proletarian elements in its ranks might prove strong enough under proper leadership to keep it on the right lines; that is, as a really independent class political party of the workers. Engels hoped these honest elements would either “teach the leaders decency or throw them overboard.” But the leaders proved too strong.

* * *

Marx and Engels did not live to see the epoch of imperialism, but Lenin, who applied Marxism to the study of the problems of imperialism, the last stage of capitalism, very carefully studied all they had written about the English workers. The indications given by Marx and Engels as to the development of the English proletarian under monopoly conditions, the buying over of the upper section of the “Labour aristocracy,” the creation of “a bourgeois Labour Party” (the old trade union movement of Burt, MacDonald, Shipton, etc.), gave Lenin valuable ideas as to the development of the working class as a whole in conditions of monopoly capitalism, of imperialism.

More than this, between 1908 and 1914, when the war finally split the Labour movement in Europe, Lenin closely followed the development of the English workers, noting every sign of a revolt against opportunism. Engels’s struggle with Hyndman he approved to the last word, noting after Engels’s death how the S.D.F. continued by its policy to justify Engels’s position.

The crime of the S.D.F., and of the S.D.P. and B.S.P. which followed it, was that they made of Marxism a dogma instead of a guide to action, to practical activity; that they did not know how “to penetrate into the unconscious but powerful class instinct of the trade unions.” The creation of the Labour Party, with which the S.D.F. refused to affiliate, was a great step forward in the mass organization of the British workers. At the same time Lenin points out it would have been a mistake to consider the Labour Party as independent of the bourgeois parties, as carrying on the class struggle, as Socialist, etc.

The S.D.F. committed typical Left sectarian mistakes in their policy towards the Labour Party, while the I.L.P., on the other hand, behaved in a typically Right opportunist fashion in trying (and succeeding) to make the workers believe the Labour Party was a party of struggle, a Socialist party.

This brilliant characterization of the two wings of British social democracy Lenin gave in 1908. Three years later he was already able to notice a reflection of the growing class struggle in Britain in a revolt against the leadership of both parties.

At the Coventry Conference of the S.D.P. the Hackney Branch had a resolution condemning Hyndman’s jingo “Big Navy” articles. Although the whole Executive defended Hyndman the resolution was only defeated by forcing a group vote in place of individual voting. At the Birmingham Conference of the I.L.P. a strong move was also made against the dependence of the Labour Party in Parliament on the Liberals.

Lenin here for the first time made his ironical comment on the I.L.P., that it is “independent of Socialism, dependent on Liberalism,” and pointed out the tremendous importance a workers’ daily might have for fighting opportunism. Next year the Daily Herald was started, but its opportunism was almost at once evident.

The Daily Herald hastened to declare in a leader that “we stand for absolute freedom of thought and action, freedom from any kind of party ties.” “A Socialist paper,” Lenin comments bitterly, “disclaiming all party ties—you cannot find a better characterization of the pitiful condition of the political organization of the working class in England.”

But 1911 saw the great railway strike; 1912 the great miners’ strike. The workers were learning to fight independently of all so-called leaders. A syndicalist movement—not very strong—began. In fright the bourgeoisie, led by Lloyd George, began to grant concessions they had never given to the Labour Party’s “peaceful persuasion”: a minimum wage for the miners, a plan for agrarian reform. It is true the concessions were worthless, but Lloyd George was a master showman and deceiver of the masses.

As a result of these great class movements changes again took place in the Social Democratic parties. At the Merthyr Congress of the I.L.P. in 1912 a demand was again made to break with the Liberals in Parliament. Keir Hardie and Snowden had the greatest difficulty in getting the resolution defeated. In the B.S.P., the rank-and-file delegates at the Blackpool Conference in 1913 succeeded in decisively defeating Hyndman and the Executive Council on the Big Navy question. Only two of the old members were re-elected. This ability to throw overboard an “old-guard” leadership which had proved thoroughly opportunist in practice Lenin counted “a big plus for the English movement.”

There is no need to deal with Lenin’s relation to the English movement during and after the war. These things are well known, particularly his decisive part at the Second Congress of the Comintern in formulating the tactics of the newly formed British Communist Party. But it is important to remember that Lenin’s tactic for the British workers was not something accidental; it was the development of views held for many years, firmly based on the teaching of Marx and Engels in regard to the British movement and developed to correspond to the conditions of imperialism. That movement Lenin had watched very carefully, knew thoroughly.

The British Communist Party is in no sense the “heir” of the old S.D.F., as some comrades would have us believe. It is in a much truer sense the heir of the Chartists, with almost a century of working-class experience to aid it in avoiding the mistakes of the Chartists, and having the advice and teaching of the three greatest teachers of the international working class to guide it, a teaching which developed continuously, from 1843 to Lenin’s death in 1924, in unbroken living contact with the realities of the British situation.