Marx-Engels Correspondence 1886

Engels to August Bebel
In Berlin


Published: Gesamtausgabe, International Publishers, 1942;
Transcribed: Sally Ryan;
HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

London, 15 February, 1886

The Social Democratic Federation which, despite all self-advertising reports, is an extremely weak organisation--containing good elements but led by literary and political adventurers--was brought to the verge of dissolution at the November elections by a stroke of genius on the part of these same leaders. Hyndman (pronounced Heindman) the head of the society, had taken money from the Tories (Conservatives) at the time, and with it put up two Social-Democratic candidates in two districts of London. As they had not even got any members in these two constituencies the way they would discredit themselves was to be foreseen (one got 27, the other 32 votes out of 4000--5000 respectively!). Hyndman, however, had no sooner got the Tory money than his head began violently to swell and he immediately set off to Birmingham, to Chamberlain, the present Minister, and offered him his "support" (which does not total 1000 votes in all England) if Chamberlain would guarantee him a seat in Birmingham by the help of the Liberals and would bring in an Eight Hour Bill. Chamberlain is no fool and showed him the door. Despite all attempts to hush it up, a great row about this in the Federation and threatened dissolution. So now something had to happen in order to get the thing going again.

In the meantime unemployment was increasing more and more. The collapse of England's monopoly on the world market has caused the crisis to continue unbroken since 1878 and to get worse rather than better. The distress, especially in the East End of the city, is appalling. The exceptionally hard winter, since January, added to the boundless indifference of the possessing classes, produced a considerable movement among the unemployed masses. As usual, political wirepullers tried to exploit this movement for their own ends. The Conservatives, who had just been superseded in the Government, put the responsibility for unemployment on to foreign competition (rightly) and foreign tariffs (for the most part wrongly) and preached "fair-trade," i.e., retaliatory tariffs. A workers' organisation also exists which believes mainly in retaliatory tariffs. This organisation summoned the meeting in Trafalgar Square on February 8. In the meantime the S.D.F. had not been idle either, had already held some small demonstrations and now wanted to utilise this meeting. Two meetings accordingly took place; the "fair traders" were round the Nelson Column while the S.D.F. people spoke at the north end of the Square, from the street opposite the National Gallery, which is about 25 feet above the square. Kautsky, who was there and went away before the row began, told me that the mass of the real workers had been around the "fair traders," whilst Hyndman and Co. had a mixed audience of people looking for a lark, some of them already merry. If Kautsky, who has hardly been here a year, noticed this, the gentlemen of the Federation must have seen it still more clearly. Nevertheless, when everybody already seemed to be scattering, they proceeded to carry out a favourite old idea of Hyndman's, namely a procession of "unemployed" through Pall Mall, the street of the big political, aristocratic and high-capitalist clubs, the centres of English political intrigue. The employed who followed them in order to hold a fresh meeting in Hyde Park, were mostly the types who do not want work anyhow, hawkers, loafers, police spies, pickpockets. When the aristocrats at the club windows sneered at them they broke the said windows, ditto the shop windows; they looted the wine dealers' shops and immediately set up a consumers' association for the contents in the street, so that in Hyde Park Hyndman and Co. had hastily to pocket their blood-thirsty phrases and go in for pacification. But the thing had now got going. During the procession, during this second little meeting and afterwards, the masses of the Lumpenproletariat, whom Hyndman had taken for the unemployed, streamed through some fashionable streets nearby, looted jewellers' and other shops, used the loaves and legs of mutton which they had looted solely to break windows with, and dispersed without meeting with any resistance. Only a remnant of them were broken up in Oxford Street by four, say four, policemen.

Otherwise the police were nowhere to be seen and their absence was so marked that we were not alone in being compelled to think it intentional. The chiefs of the police seem to be Conservatives who had no objection to seeing a bit of a row in this period of Liberal Government. However the Government at once set up a Commission of Inquiry and it may cost more than one of these gentlemen his job.