Works of Karl Marx 1869

Importance and Weakness of English Labour

Source: Labour Monthly, July 1923, pp. 30-36, “Selection from the Literary Remains of Karl Marx,” III England and Revolution, Max Beer;

Original German: Reprinted in Neue Zeit, Stuttgart, Vol. XX, part 2, p. 475. This article (“Importance and Weakness”) was a “Confidential Circular” of the General Council to the branches of the International;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In 1869, the General Council of the International Working Men’s Associations, who also functioned as Regional Council of England, was assailed from two opposite sides – from Bakunin’s Geneva paper, Egalité, and from some English members, both opposition elements demanding a division of function, that is, the severance of the English Regional Council from the General Council. In a meeting, held for this purpose on January 1, 1870, the General Council rejected the motion of the Bakuninists in the following reply formulated and drafted by Karl Marx.

Long before the Egalité was founded the motion to sever the General Council from the Regional Council was repeatedly brought forward and supported by two English members of the Council. It has always been rejected with practical unanimity. Our opinion is that, while the revolutionary impulse may perhaps come from France, it is surely England only that can be made into a lever for a lasting economic revolution. It is the only country which has no peasantry to speak of, and where landed property is concentrated in a few hands. It is the only country where the capitalist form, that is, combined living and mechanical labour on a large scale controlled by capitalist employers, has got hold of the whole production. It is the only country where the great majority of the population consists of wage workers. It is the only country in which the class division and the organisation of the working class through the trade unions have attained a certain degree of maturity and comprehensiveness. Owing to her predominance on the world markets England is the only country where a transformation of its economic conditions must immediately react on the whole world. If landlordism and capitalism have their classical seats in that country, so are also all the material conditions of their destruction most highly developed there. The General Council, by functioning also as Regional Council, is in a position to get immediate hold of that great lever of proletarian revolution. How stupid, how criminal would it be to surrender such an instrument into English hands only!

The English possess all material requisites of the social revolution. But they lack the spirit of generalisation and revolutionary passion. Only the General Council is able to inspire them with those qualities and thus to speed the revolutionary forces in that country and consequently everywhere. The only means to attain that object is to secure an unbroken contact of the General Council with English Labour. As General Council and Regional Council we can set on foot movements (as, for instance, the Land and Labour League) which appear in the eyes of the public as spontaneous manifestations of the English working class.

Should a Regional Council be formed apart from the General Council, what would be the immediate effect of such a step? What authority would it enjoy when placed between the General Council of the International and that of the trade unions?

England cannot be looked upon as simply a country like any other country. She must be considered as the metropolis of capitalism.