First Published: Reg. Groves, Marx and the Labour Parliament of 1854, Labour Monthly, March 1930, pp.172-176.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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“If the Labour Parliament proves true to the idea that called it into life, some future historian will have to record that there existed in the year 1854 two Parliaments, a Parliament at London and a Parliament at Manchester – a Parliament of the rich and a Parliament of the poor – but that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.” – KARL MARX.
The Labour Parliament has received but little attention from historians. Bourgeois historians have been too concerned with the “parliament of the rich” to give attention to the “parliament of the poor.” Even the historians of our own movement have almost ignored it. Almost without exception they treat it as being the last feeble effort of the remnants of the mighty Chartist movement; yet of this parliament Marx wrote “The mere assembling of such a parliament marks a new epoch in the history of the world.”
The prime mover in the assembling of the Labour Parliament was Ernest Jones. Upon his release from prison in the year 1850 Jones set to work to revive the Chartist Movement; his efforts failed, however, to secure any real and lasting response from the British workers. The revolutionary tide was at low ebb; as Jones declared: “Every year the revolutionary element has become more languid.”
The rapid expansion of British trade and the consequent concessions secured by the proletariat had detached from the Chartist Movement the most important of its adherents; increased emigration had deprived it of many of its most active workers. Ernest Jones, however, through his Notes to the People and later through the People’s Paper, kept up a constant agitation. He aimed at drawing together the now divided working class, and to that end he urged the building of a mass movement that would unite the workers on immediate demands as a stage in the mobilisation of the workers for the struggle for power.
The latter part of the year 1853 saw the struggles in the textile industry, notably at Preston and Wigan, and out of these came the “Mass Movement Committee,” which was elected in November, 1853, by a mass meeting at Manchester. This Committee worked to win the support of the whole working class for those workers at Preston and Wigan engaged in struggle, and to this end propagated the idea of a Labour Parliament. The Committee raised a fair amount of money in various ways for these workers. Ernest Jones was now vigorously propagating, on the platform and in the pages of the People’s Paper, the need for a Labour Parliament. He was constantly emphasising the need for this Parliament to unite the working class against the employing class, and to establish a central strike fund for the support of all workers engaged in struggle. Thus, in the People’s Paper for January 7, 1854, he wrote:–
Every day brings fresh confirmation of the need for a mass movement and the speedy assembling of the Labour Parliament. If it is delayed much longer, every place, Preston included, lost or at the best forced into degrading and weakening compromises ... The Cotton Lords, at a “Mass Meeting” of their own, unanimously resolved to support their brother Cotton Lords of Preston and Wigan with the full force of their funds. Under these circumstances it is class against class ...
It must, therefore, become manifest that unless the working classes fight this battle as a Class, that is, in one universal union by a mass movement, they will be inevitably defeated ...
The greater the lock-out, the wider the strike movement, the more national becomes the movement – the more of a class struggle it is rendered – and if the working classes once see that they are struck at as a class, their class instinct will be roused and they will rise and act as one man.
The work of Ernest Jones for the Labour Parliament and for the International Committee that arose out of it marks the culmination of his career as a revolutionary agitator. When, in 1858, the People’s Paper ceased publication, Jones, worn out and disheartened, closed his Chartist career and entered the ranks of Radical-Liberal politics. But his adhesion to Radical-Liberalism during the last eight years of his life should not hinder an appreciation of his work during the later stages of Chartism and of his efforts for the Labour Parliament.
The Parliament first met on March 6, 1854, at Manchester, and was attended by some fifty or sixty delegates, mainly from the textile unions. The following letter from Karl Marx makes it clear the event was considered by him as one of considerable significance in working-class history. Curiously enough this letter has been ignored by almost all those who have written on this period; it is taken from the People’s Paper for March 18, 1854:–
28 Dean Street, Soho
March 9, 1854
I regret deeply to be unable for the moment at least to leave London and thus to be prevented from expressing verbally my feelings of pride and gratitude on receiving the invitation to sit as Honorary Delegate at the Labour Parliament.
The mere assembling of such a Parliament marks a new epoch in the history of the world. The news of this great fact will arouse the hopes of the working classes throughout Europe and America.
Great Britain, of all other countries, has seen developed, on the greatest scale, the despotism of capital and the slavery of labour, In no other country have the intermediate stations between the millionaire, commanding whole industrial armies, and the wage slaves, living only from hand to mouth, so gradually been swept away from the soil. There exists no longer, as in Continental countries, large classes of peasants and artisans almost equally dependant on their own property and their own labour. A complete divorce of property has been effected in Great Britain.
In no other country, therefore, has the war between the two classes that constitute modern society assumed so colossal dimension and features so distinct and palpable.
But it is precisely from these facts that the working classes of Great Britain, before all others, are competent and called for to act as leaders in the great movement that must finally result in the absolute emancipation of Labour. Such they are from the conscious clearness of their position, the vast superiority of their numbers, the disastrous struggles of their past and the moral strength of their present.
It is the working millions of Great Britain who first have laid down the real basis of a new society – modern industry which transformed the destructive agencies of nature into the productive power of man. The English working classes with invincible energies, by the sweat of their brows and brains, have called into life the material means of ennobling labour itself and multiplying its fruits to such a degree as to make general abundance possible.
By creating the inexhaustible productive powers of modern industry they have fulfilled the first condition of the emancipation of labour. They have now to realise its other conditions. The have to free those wealth-producing powers from the infamous shackles of monopoly and subject them to the joint control of the producers, who till now allowed the very products of their hands to turn against them and be transformed into as many instruments of their own subjugation.
The labouring classes have conquered nature; they have now to conquer men. To succeed in this attempt they do not want strength but the organisation of their common strength, organisation of the labouring classes on a national scale – such, I suppose, is the great end aimed at by the Labour Parliament.
If the Labour Parliament proves true to the idea that called it into life some future historian will have to record that there existed in the year 1854. two Parliaments: a Parliament at London and a Parliament at Manchester – a Parliament of the rich and a Parliament of the poor – but that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.
The Parliament’s discussions lasted several days, and when it broke up it declared its intention of meeting again at a later date that year. The programme it finally adopted is a curious mixture. None of the demands put forward in the Charter appears in this programme. Its main point is the “organisation of a system for the collecting of national revenue for Labour” to be raised by a weekly levy on wages. The fund was to “support all towns and places now or hereafter on strike or locked out,” and also to settle unemployed workers on the land. It also stated that:–
The power of this movement shall be further extended to secure a due restriction of the hours of labour; a limitation of female labour in manufacture as also the entire abolition of the labour of young children in mines and factories; a cessation of the tyrannical system of discharge notes, of fines, abatements and other unjust modes of reducing wages.
The point of view of Ernest Jones on the role of the Parliament – “under these circumstances it is class against class” – was not the general point of view of the delegates. The Mass Movement Committee was continually emphasising the fact that the movement was in no way a political movement. Many of the workers, influenced by their Trade Union officials, were at first highly suspicious of the movement. The Lancashire miners refused to appoint delegates with full powers, and only sent delegates with a watching brief, an attitude that caused considerable commotion and discussion in the Parliament. The capitalist Press regarded the movement as dangerous and attacked it.
An executive was elected – Jones was included as an honorary member – and after the Parliament had concluded, the work of raising the “national revenue for Labour” was commenced. For a few months some twenty pounds a week flowed in and then the support dwindled; the Parliament never met again.
These facts certainly suggest that the Parliament was premature, but do not support the point of view that it was merely the dying effort of the remnants of Chartism. The Parliament was more than that. It marks an intermediate stage between the Chartist Movement and the rise of the Socialist Movement of later years. Not only was it the last challenge of the old class movement of the Chartists to the Liberal politics of class conciliation so widespread at that time; it was also the forerunner of the later Socialist Movement, of the later mobilisation of the working class under the banner of class politics. The International Committee which arose out of this Parliament did a great deal of work and helped to prepare the way for the First International.
Premature though it may have been in one sense, yet it was of deep significance; it was a stage in the development of our movement; it was an attempt to mobilise the workers under the slogan of class against class, deserving of more than the indifferent treatment that it has so far received. Let us remember that on March 6, 1854, there met two Parliaments: “a Parliament of the rich and a Parliament of the poor and that men sat only in the Parliament of the men and not in the Parliament of the masters.”
Last updated: 11 March 2010