Karl Marx 1853

The Indian Question — Irish Tenant Right

Source: Marx & Engels on Ireland, pp. 59-65;
First Published: in The New-York Daily Tribune No. 8816, July 11 1853;
Printed: according to the text of the newspaper.

London, June 28, 1853

The debate on Lord Stanley’s motion with respect to India commenced on the 23rd, continued on the 24th, and adjourned to the 27th inst., has not been brought to a close. When that shall at length have arrived, I intend to resume my observations on the Indian question.[35]

As the Coalition Ministry[36] depends on the support of the Irish party, and as all the other parties composing the House of Commons so nicely balance each other that the Irish may at any moment turn the scales which way they please, some concessions are at last about to be made to the Irish tenants. The “Leasing powers (Ireland) Bill,” which passed the House of Commons on Friday last, contains a provision that for the improvements made on the soil and separable from the soil, the tenant shall have, at the termination of his lease, a compensation in money, the incoming tenant being at liberty take them at the valuation, while with respect to improvements in the soil, compensation for them shall be arranged by contract between the landlord and the tenant. [37]

A tenant having incorporated his capital, in one form or another, in the land, and having thus effected an improvement of the soil, either directly by irrigation, drainage, manure, or indirectly by construction of buildings for agricultural purposes, in steps the landlord with demand for increased rent. If the tenant concede, he has to pay the interest for his own money to the landlord. If he resist, he will be very unceremoniously ejected, and supplanted by a new tenant, the latter being enabled to pay a higher rent by the very expenses incurred by his predecessors, until he also, in his turn, has become an improver of the land, and is replaced in the same way, or put on worse terms. In this easy way a class of absentee landlords has been enabled to pocket, not merely the labour, but also the capital, of whole generations, each generation of Irish peasants sinking a grade lower in the social scale, exactly in proportion to the exertions and sacrifices made for the raising of their condition and that of their families. If the tenant was industrious and enterprising, he became taxed in consequence of his very industry and enterprise. If, on the contrary, he grew inert and negligent, he was reproached with the “aboriginal faults of the Celtic race.” He had, accordingly, no other alternative left but to become a pauper — to pauperise himself by industry, or to pauperise by negligence. In order to oppose this state of things, “Tenant Right” was proclaimed in Ireland — a right of the tenant, not in the soil but in the improvements of the soil effected at his cost and charges. Let us see in what manner The Times, in its Saturday’s leader, attempts to break down this Irish “Tenant Right” [38]:

“There are two general systems of farm occupation. Either a tenant may take a lease of the land for a fixed number of years, or his holding may be terminable at any time upon certain notice. In the first of these events, it would be obviously his course to adjust and apportion his outlay so that all, or nearly all the benefit would find its way to him before the expiration of his term. In the second case it seems equally obvious that he should not run the risk of the investment without a proper assurance of return.”

Where the landlords have to deal with a class of large capitalists who may, as they please, invest their stock in commerce, in manufactures or in farming, there can be no doubt but that these capitalist farmers, whether they take long leases or no time leases at all, know how to secure the proper return of their outlays. But with regard to Ireland the supposition is quite fictitious. On the one side you have there a small class of land monopolists, on the other, a very large class of tenants with very petty fortunes, which they have no chance to invest in different ways, no other field of production opening to them, except the soil. They are, therefore, forced to become tenants-at-will. Being once tenants-at-will, they naturally run the risk of losing their revenue, provided they do not invest their small capital. Investing it, in order to secure their revenue, they run the risk of losing their capital, also.

“Perhaps,” continues The Times, “it maybe said, that in any case a tenantry could hardly expire without something being left upon the ground, in some shape or another, representing the tenant’s own property, and that for this compensation should be forthcoming. There is some truth in the remark, but the demand thus created ought, under proper conditions of society, — to be easily adjusted between landlord and tenant, as it might, at any rate, be provided for in the original contract. We say that the conditions of society should regulate these arrangements, because we believe that no Parliamentary enactment can be effectually substituted for such an agency.”

Indeed, under “proper conditions of society,” we should want no more Parliamentary interference with the Irish land-tenant, as we should not want, under “proper conditions of society,” the interference of the soldier, of the policeman, and of the hangman. Legislature, magistracy and armed force, are all of them but the offspring of improper conditions of society, preventing those arrangements among men which would make useless the compulsory intervention of a third supreme power. Has, perhaps, The Times been converted into a social revolutionist? Does it want a social revolution, reorganising the “conditions of society,” and the “arrangements” emanating from them, instead of “Parliamentary enactments"? England has subverted the conditions of Irish society. At first it confiscated the land, then it suppressed the industry [39] by “Parliamentary enactments,” and lastly, it broke the active energy by armed force. And thus England created those abominable “conditions of society” which enable a small caste of rapacious lordlings to dictate to the Irish people the terms on which they shall be allowed to hold the land and to live upon it. Too weak yet for revolutionising those “social conditions,” the people appeal to Parliament, demanding at least their mitigation and regulation. But “No,” says The Times; if you don’t live under proper conditions of society, Parliament can’t mend that. And if the Irish people, on the advice of The Times, tried tomorrow to mend their conditions of society, The Times would be the first to appeal to bayonets, and to pour out sanguinary denunciations of the “aboriginal faults of the Celtic race,” wanting the Anglo-Saxon taste for pacific progress and legal amelioration.

“If a landlord,” says The Times, “deliberately injures one tenant, he will find it so much the harder to get another, and whereas his occupation consists in letting land, he will find his land all the more difficult to let.”

The case stands rather differently in Ireland. The more a landlord injures one tenant, the easier he will find it to oppress another. The tenant who comes in, is the means of injuring the ejected one, and the ejected one is the means of keeping down the new occupant. That, in due course of time, the landlord, beside injuring the tenant, will injure himself and ruin himself, is not only a probability, but the very fact, in Ireland — a fact affording, however, a very precarious source of comfort to the ruined tenant.

“The relations between the landlord and tenant are those between two traders,” says The Times.

This is precisely the petitio principii which pervades the whole leader of The Times. The needy Irish tenant belongs to the soil, while the soil belongs to the English lord. As well you might call the relation between the robber who presents his pistol, and the traveller who presents his purse, a relation between two traders.

“But,” says The Times, “in point of fact, the relation between Irish landlords and tenants will soon be reformed by an agency more potent than that of legislation. The property of Ireland is fast passing into new hands, and, if the present rate of emigration continues, its cultivation must undergo the same transfer.”

Here, at least, The Times has the truth. British Parliament does not interfere at a moment when the worked-out old system is terminating in the common ruin, both of the thrifty landlord and the needy tenant, the former being knocked down by the hammer of the Encumbered Estates Commission, and the latter expelled by compulsory emigration. This reminds us of the old Sultan of Morocco. Whenever there was a case pending between two parties, he knew of no more “potent agency” for settling their controversy, than by killing both parties.

“Nothing could tend,” concludes The Times with regard to Tenant Right, “to greater confusion than such a communistic distribution of ownership. The only person with any right in the land, is the landlord.”

The Times seems to have been the sleeping Epimenides of the past half century, and never to have heard of the hot controversy going on during all that time upon the claims of the landlord, not among social reformers and Communists, but among the very political economists of the British middle class. Ricardo, the creator of modern political economy in Great Britain, did not controvert the “right” of the landlords, as he was quite convinced that their claims were based upon fact, and not on right, and that political economy in general had nothing to do with questions of right; but he attacked the land-monopoly in a more unassuming, yet more scientific, and therefore more dangerous manner. He proved that private proprietorship in land, as distinguished from the respective claims of the labourer, and of the farmer, was a relation quite superfluous in, and incoherent with, the whole framework of modern production; that the economical expression of that relationship and the rent of land, might, with great advantage, be appropriated by the State; and finally that the interest of the landlord was opposed to the interest of all other classes of modern society. It would be tedious to enumerate all the conclusions drawn from these premises by the Ricardo School against the landed monopoly. For my end, it will suffice to quote three of the most recent economical authorities of Great Britain.

The London Economist, whose chief editor, Mr. J. Wilson, is not only a Free Trade oracle [40], but a Whig one, too, and not only a Whig, but also an inevitable Treasury-appendage in every Whig or composite ministry, has contended in different articles that exactly speaking there can exist no title authorising any individual, or any number of individuals, to claim the exclusive proprietorship in the soil of a nation.

Mr. Newman, in his Lectures on Political Economy, London, 1851, professedly written for the purpose of refuting socialism, tells us:

“No man has, or can have, a natural right to land, except so long as he occupies it in person. His right is to the use, and to the use only. All other right is the creation of artificial law” (or Parliamentary enactments as The Times would call it) .... “If, at any time, land becomes needed to live upon, the right of private possessors to withhold it comes to an end.”

This is exactly the case in Ireland, and Mr. Newman expressly confirms the claims of the Irish tenantry, and in lectures held before the most select audiences of the British aristocracy.

In conclusion let me quote some passages from Mr. Herbert Spencer’s work, Social Statics, London, 1851, also, purporting to be a complete refutation of communism, and acknowledged as the most elaborate development of the Free Trade doctrines of modern England.

“No one may use the earth in such a way as to prevent the rest from similarly using it. Equity, therefore, does not permit property in land, or the rest would live on the earth by sufferance only. The landless men might equitably be expelled from the earth altogether. ... It can never be pretended, that the existing titles to such property are legitimate. Should anyone think so let him look in the Chronicles. The original deeds were written with the sword, rather than with the pen. Not lawyers but soldiers were the conveyancers: blows were the current coin given in payment; and for seals blood was used in preference to wax. Could valid claims be thus constituted? Hardly. And if not, what becomes of the pretensions of all subsequent holders of estates so obtained? Does sale or bequest generate a right where it did not previously exist?... If one act of transfer can give no title, can many? ... At what rate per annum do invalid claims become valid?.., The right of mankind at large to the earth’s surface is still valid, all deeds, customs and laws notwithstanding. It is impossible to discover any mode in which land can become private property. ... We daily deny landlordism by our legislation. Is a canal, a railway, or a turnpike road to be made? We do not scruple to seize just as many acres as may be requisite. We do not wait for consent. ... The change required would simply be a change of landlords. ... Instead of being in the possession of individuals, the country would be held by the great corporate body — society. Instead of leasing his acres from an isolated proprietor, the farmer would lease them from the nation. Instead of paying his rent to the agent of Sir John, or His Grace, he will pay to an agent, or deputy-agent of the community. Stewards would be public officials, instead of private ones, and tenantry the only land tenure. ... Pushed to its ultimate consequences, a claim to exclusive possession of the soil involves landowning despotism.”

Thus, from the very point of view of modern English political economists, it is not the usurping English landlord but the Irish tenants and labourers, who have the only right in the soil of their native country, and The Times, in opposing the demands of the Irish people, places itself into direct antagonism to British middle-class science.


35. Marx realised this intention in the article “The Future Results of the British Rule in India,” printed in The New-York Daily Tribune on August 8, 1853.

36. The Coalition Ministry (1852-55), headed by Aberdeen, consisted of representatives of both ruling parties: the Whigs and the Tories and a group of Peelites (moderate Tories), to whom the Premier himself belonged. Whigs predominated in the Ministry. Aberdeen’s Government was ironically called the “ministry of all talents.”

37. A draft Bill submitted by Aberdeen’s Government to the House of Commons in June 1853. The government expected to normalise the relations between landlords and tenants by giving the latter some rights and thereby mitigating the class struggle in the country. After more than two years of debates Parliament rejected the Bill.

38. The article referred to was printed in The Times on June 25, 1853.

39. With the introduction of the Union in 1801 the English Parliament abolished the tariffs which had protected the emergent Irish industry against European competition since the end of the eighteenth century. The abrogation of the tariffs dealt a mortal blow to Irish manufacture, which was unable to compete with the far more powerful English industry. Cotton and wool manufacture died out altogether and Ireland became an agrarian appendage of England.

40. Free traders — champions of unencumbered trade and non-intervention by the state in the economy. The centre of the free traders was in Manchester, where the so-called Manchester School emerged — a trend in economic thought reflecting the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie. The movement was headed by the textile manufacturers Cobden and Bright, who in 1838 organised the Anti-Corn Law League. In the forties and fifties the free traders were a separate political grouping of bourgeois radicals, who at the end of the fifties amalgamated with the emerging English Liberal Party.