The Working Class Movement in England: Eleanor Marx

The Working Class Movement in England: Eleanor Marx

An account of the growth of the Working Class movement in England and the United Kingdom, from the middle ages to the 1890's.

WHEN my friend Wurm told me that Tussy Marx — Mrs. Eleanor Marx Aveling will not take it amiss that I use the dear, familiar name of her as a child — had undertaken to write a history of the English working-class movement for the Volks Lexikon, I was very glad. I knew that as a consequence the English workers and the German workers would be brought more nearly heart to heart. For the writer not only knows the history and the present condition of the English workers’ movement — not only knows it, I may say, almost by heredity; but, ever since she was able to think and act, she has been heart and soul in that movement, her feelings and emotions one with those of the English workers. So that the historical sketch she has promised will be written, not simply with the head, but from the heart.

And this is the more necessary because the special course of the English workers’ movement, its calm, reasonable method, and the absence of any noisy theatrical effects, tend to make us overlook the immeasurable wisdom, sacrifice, martyrdom, inflexible energy and bulldog tenacity shown in the history of that English working-class, to whom our Frederick Engels half a century ago dedicated the classic work of his youth, “The Condition of the Working-class in England.”

My expectations have not been disappointed.

The title at once told me that the question was correctly grasped. Not merely the “English Workers’ Movement,” but “The Working-class Movement in England.” By this title, the movement is, at the outset, recognised as a class struggle. The industrial development of England is in advance of that of Germany by many years. In Germany business on a large capitalistic scale, modern capitalism, is only about fifty years old. Thanks to this early economic maturity, by the second-third of the last century — more than twenty years before the French Revolution — the character of the modern workers’ movement had been thus early impressed upon the English workers’ movement, which, even in mediaeval times was characterised by forcible resistance to the “masters.” Hence the English language does not know a workers’, but only a working-class movement. If, then, I must give the credit of this to the English workers’ movement itself, yet to the author belongs by her choice of the title, “The Working-class Movement in England” instead of “The English Working-class Movement,” the incontestable merit of placing in the foreground the International nature of the workers’ movement. And I lay the more stress on this as the English workers are, without reason and very unjustly, given a character for national narrow-mindedness and selfishness. The English are made up of contradictions — contradictions that are, undoubtedly, more apparent than real. Their insular exclusiveness — in some cases so marked that it reminds one of China — is in contrast to the cosmopolitan spirit, which looks out from the little island, ruler of the seas, over the trade and commerce of the world and lifts England to the highest height of cosmopolitan humanity. When, after the crash of 1849, we exiles anchored in England, at first we wondered greatly that in the capital of a people that go about the world more than any others and do more business than any others with all nations in the world, a felt hat or a beard not exactly in harmony with English models led to a crowd in the street. But, as soon as we came in contact with these very people who behave so like Chinese, and got to know them better, we were astonished at the friendly interest they took in us. And among the workers, at that time shaken by the after effects of the storm of the Chartist movement, we found always an understanding and inspiring sympathy.

During the thirteen years I spent in England I learnt to know the English workers and to love them. Far from looking askant at the foreigner, they have, on the contrary, a considerate sympathy with him, which seemed to me not infrequently excessive. How often have the English workers said to me, apologetically, “Politically we are, alas! far behind the French and Germans.” By this they meant that in 1848 they had not managed a “revolution” in England. And they forgot that in England they had already got beyond that sort of spectacular drama. Only the romantic side of revolution has something dazzling about it, and that side is wanting in the English. Not that they are, by any means, incapable of enthusiasm. I shall never forget the passionate enthusiasm of Julian Harney’s and Ernest Jones’s last Chartist meetings, and the mass meeting on Robert Owen’s eightieth birthday.

We have accustomed ourselves to consider the English, because the material and realistic effects of capitalism came out earlier and more clearly among them, as human machines compared with us, as a sort of automata, passionless, without emotion. That is a very superficial idea. We must not forget that the English are the people of Byron and of Shakespeare, and that no working class of any nation has rebelled against capitalism so obstinately, so heroically, as the English workers. The history of the English workers is the history of an unbroken struggle for the rights of labour, for the rights of the workers as men and women. The political and economic history of England explains to us the political and economic significance of the present, and to some extent shows us, “as in a glass darkly,” the future. And, in like manner, the history of the working class of England is a sure guarantee that the working class which suffered and is suffering so frightfully under capitalism has also the power and ability to overthrow capitalism. The old cry of “No surrender” is that of the English working class to-day, as it was five hundred years ago. The battle is to the death and to victory.

The great heart of the English workers has never failed. Wherever there has been fighting for the cause of labour and humanity, there were the true, sincere, and, where need was, the practical sympathies of the English workers. Nothing can be more unworthy and at the same time more stupid than the assertion of the German mercenaries of the capitalists, that “when the English support strikes on the Continent, they do it only with the interested idea of injuring foreign and helping English industry.” These English workers as will be shown in the historical sketch which follows — during the American blockade at the time of the Civil War between the North and South, bore cheerfully the most extreme privations and bitter hunger, and victoriously resisted the reactionary attempts made to incite them to agitation against the American Union and the cause of the emancipation of the slaves.

Undoubtedly, the English workers “gang their ain gait.” But only because the whole commercial and historical development of England has followed its own special lines — lines that are different from those of any other country.

But the English workers’ movement has always been revolutionary in the class struggle sense, and if, as far as the trade unions are concerned, the movement has not yet worked out to a complete Socialism, yet it is growing more and more in the direction of Socialism, and — as the recent Trade Union Congress at Cardiff has shown again — does not, even when it is working along the most severely practical lines, belie its international character.

The author of the “Working Class Movement in England'’ has accurately mastered and pictured the position of the English workers. She has written from the heart. She has lived and fought with the English workers, and learnt to love them. She is one with them, and is herself a part of the modern English workers’ movement. In eloquent words she gives us a faithful picture of men and things. And she shows us the distinguishing mark of the English workers’ movement and of all English history, the steady advance, the firm retention of what has been conquered, the earnest pressing forward in spite of everything. And always forward towards the goal; never by leaps, sometimes with swift, sometimes with slow strides, often a zig-zag, often by side paths — but always forward, always nearer to the goal.

The author had, of course, to work within very narrow limits; but she has succeeded in condensing the essence of her material into the short space at her disposal. The facts and details appear to be completely reliable, and new light is thrown upon different periods and episodes. For example, on the history of the Chartist movement so little known in Germany, and which is of quite special interest to us because its chief aim was the conquest of political power by universal suffrage. In a word, the “Working Class Movement in England,” even if it is very greatly condensed, is a true, comprehensive history of the English working class omitting nothing that is essential. It is, indeed, the best history we have of the English workers’ movement. In this essay the workers have an admirable and reliable guide.

Still, that I may not be accused of flattery, let me make one criticism. I think the author has made one error. I mean in her statement that Brentano is wrong when he says the English Trade Unions arose out of the mediaeval gilds. In the course of my practical work and much study at the British Museum I have made myself fairly well acquainted with the nature and the history of the trade unions, and in a lecture I gave in the Communist Club, London, and which Marx praised very kindly, I proved that the trade unions already existed at the beginning of the Grand Industry, and that they derived their customs and ceremonies very largely from the old gilds. I have read through the secret statutes of various old trade unions — they are to be found in the Parliamentary reports, about the beginning of the twenties, on the abolition of the anti-combination laws. The picture given by Disraeli in his classic romance, “Sybil,” is taken directly from these acts. And whoever reads that novel and knows the statutes of the mediaeval gilds, will at once see the resemblance. The ceremonies of admission, the oaths to be taken, the penalties for treachery, in many points are as like the ceremonies of Freemasons as one egg is like another. And these ceremonies, it is well known, have not come from Egypt, hut from the mediaeval lodges. The trade unions were and are, in respect to rites and mysteries, besides their rules, not essentially different from the gilds of the different trades. Of course, most of these associations, and the masons especially, maintained that their rites and regulations originated from the ancient Egyptians.

The popular and national life of England has never been so completely trodden under foot as that of Germany has been. The continuity, the enduring connection of commercial development, and, as a consequence, the continuity of the working class struggle in England, is clear, whilst in Germany, there lies between the mediaeval and the modern development of commerce, the pathless desert of the second half of the sixteenth and the whole of the seventeenth centuries, i.e., a whole century and a half. On these grounds there is much to be said for the assumption that the old gild arrangements have been maintained in England, and the probability of this becomes almost a certainty, if we bear in mind the extraordinary tenacity of the English and their conservatism, in spite of all their movement forwards.

Whether the author is right on this point or I am does not affect the value of her work. I can recommend it most strongly to all our comrades. May the “Working Class Movement in England” have the widest possible circulation amongst the workers.

Wilhelm Liebknecht
September, 1895.

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Apr 20 2016 23:22


  • Again the “Physical Force” Party tried to convince the Chartists that their only hope was in an armed revolt. How serious the situation had become is perhaps best seen from the military plan drawn up by Charles Napier, which was meant to meet any possible attempt at a rising.

    Eleanor Marx

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