Marx and Engels: The Labour Aristocracy, opportunism and the British Labour movement

Pin It

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 27, March 1983

marx 1

Karl Marx died on 14 March 1883. One hundred years later the socialist revolution has yet to take place in any of the major industrial (imperialist) nations where it was expected to occur first. Instead of breaking out in the industrially developed capitalist countries of England, America, France, and Germany, the socialist revolution occurred first in backward Russia. And since that time all successful social revolutions have been carried out in the less industrially developed parts of the world and in the oppressed nations. However, far from contradicting the fundamental principles of the founders of Marxism, such developments were anticipated in their writings and the principles were laid down for explaining them. 

Without a revolutionary situation a revolution is impossible. And further not all revolutionary situations lead to revolution. What then are the symptoms of a revolutionary situation? Lenin pointed to three major ones: (1) A crisis in the ruling classes: the ruling classes are unable to maintain their rule in the old way. A crisis develops which leads to differences in policy and divisions in the ruling classes. Such divisions create an opening for the discontent and anger of the oppressed classes to burst through. (2) The suffering of the oppressed classes has grown more acute than usual. They do not want to live in the old way. (3) As a result of the above developments there is a considerable increase in the activity of the masses. Driven by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the attacks of the ruling classes, the oppressed masses are drawn into independent historical action.

These objective changes are independent of the will ‘not only of individual groups and parties but even of individual classes’. As a general rule a revolution is not possible without them. However not all revolutionary situations give rise to revolutions. A revolution occurs when these objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change – that is ‘the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, ‘falls’, if it is not toppled over’. (Lenin, The Collapse of the Second International CW Vol 1 p213-4).

The historical development of the capitalist system has shown that, after numerous crises and two imperialist world wars, it still survives in all the major capitalist countries of Lenin’s day. The subjective factor – the revolutionary class – has not been strong enough to overthrow the capitalist system. It was, in fact, weakened from within. Opportunist currents, holding great influence over the working class movement in the major capitalist nations, through their positions of status and political control, have been able to hold back and undermine the independent political activity of the working class.

It was the great merit of Marx and Engels to show how such opportunist currents grew out of the special features of the development of capitalism in the most industrially advanced capitalist country of their time – Britain. Without doubt the further development of Marx and Engels’ position on this question laid the foundation for the political and economic positions underlying Lenin’s theory of imperialism. Lenin both acknowledged this and explained why this could be the case:

‘It must be observed that in Great Britain the tendency of imperialism to split the workers, to strengthen opportunism among them and to cause temporary decay in the working-class movement, revealed itself much earlier than the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries; for two important distinguishing features of imperialism were already observed in Great Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century – vast colonial possessions and a monopolist position in the world market. Marx and Engels traced this connection between opportunism in the working-class movement and the imperialist features of British capitalism systematically, during the course of several decades.' (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism CW Vol 22 p283 – see also Imperialism and the Split in Socialism CW Vol 23 p111-2.)

Since the Second Imperialist War the hold of opportunist currents over the working class movements in the imperialist countries has been significantly strengthened as a result of the years of the post-war boom. As a new imperialist crisis threatens to engulf the whole world, it is even more imperative that the influence of these opportunist currents is destroyed. The understanding Marx and Engels gave us on the development of opportunism and its relation to imperialism must be the starting point for those determined to destroy opportunism and build real forces that can finally bring about the socialist revolution in the imperialist countries today. This understanding is derived from their experience of the struggles of the working class over a period of fifty years. And it is to this we now turn.


The first mass working class party in the history of the labour movement was the National Charter Association founded in July 1840. It had about 50,000 members in the years of the rise of the Chartist movement. Its supporters and sympathisers ran into hundreds of thousands. Chartism not only had the backing of the main body of the working class in Britain but became a militant movement which for a period of years was powerful enough to threaten revolution. Lenin called Chartism ‘the first broad, truly, mass and politically organised revolutionary movement’. (CW Vol 29 p309)

Chartism began as a movement against the political betrayals of the bourgeoisie by the Reform Act of 1832. This Act was directed against the political monopoly of the landed and financial aristocracy and gave representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie access to parliament. The proletariat and the petit bourgeoisie who had been the main force in the struggle for reform did not get the vote. However it was the particularly harsh economic conditions of Britain in the 1830s and 1840s which were decisive in turning Chartism into a mass militant working class movement.

Between the Reform Act of 1832 and the beginning of Chartism in 1836-7 the working classes had fought and lost two great struggles. They had struggled hard to win the ten hour day – Sadlers Bill – which was not to be won until 1847. They had joined trade unions in large numbers between 1820 and 1834 only to have them crushed by the combined action of the Whig government, the Law Courts and the employers. And in 1836-7 they were beginning to fight against the introduction of the New Poor Law in industrial areas. This New Poor Law denied outdoor Parish relief to all ‘able bodied persons’. Relief would only now be given in the new ‘workhouses’ and then only under ‘less eligible’ conditions than those of the worst-off labourer in ordinary employment. The terms of relief were vicious, involving the splitting up of families and the segregation of the sexes under a rigid disciplinarian regime. The Poor Law was administered by Boards of Guardians mainly drawn from the propertied classes. It is little wonder that it was fought by methods of mass resistance and often the houses of those who agreed to serve as Guardians came under attack. (See GDH Cole, Chartist Portraits)

The People’s Charter containing the demands of the Chartists was published on 8 May 1838. The six demands of the Charter called for adult male suffrage, annual general elections, payment of MPs, vote by ballot, equal electoral distribution and the abolition of the property qualification. These demands although very ‘middle class’ being ‘limited to the reconstitution of the House of Commons’ were opposed by the ruling class precisely because, in the conditions of industrial Britain at that time, they would have meant ‘political power for the working class’ (Marx).

Given the background to the rise of the Chartist movement in the 1830s and 1840s, it was little surprise that a movement which began around the People’s Charter, chiefly of workers though not yet sharply distinguished from the radical bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie, was soon to emerge as a ‘working-men’s cause freed from all bourgeois elements’ (Engels). People were called upon to arm themselves and frequently urged to revolt. Police stations were often attacked and prisoners released. Armed clashes with soldiers and police took place. Of note were the Newport Rising 1839 and the Manchester Uprising 1842 – the latter precipitated by wage cuts by the mill owners. Both were brutally put down.

After the European revolutions of 1848 the Chartist agitation built up to a new pitch. While a third national petition was being organised to be presented to Parliament in April 1848 (officially counted, it was said to have 2 million signatures, the Chartist leaders claimed over 5 million), sections of the Chartist movement believed it was necessary to prepare for an insurrection on the grounds that the uselessness of petitioning Parliament had already been clearly demonstrated – Parliament had overwhelmingly rejected the first two petitions. Drilling and arming went on all over the industrial areas on a scale much bigger than before.

The petition was to be presented to Parliament after a massive demonstration on Kennington Common (a large open space in a working class district in South London) and a march to the House of Commons on 10 April. The ruling class was afraid, given the events in Europe, that the demonstration would be the signal for revolution. The government prepared for a decisive battle. A Chartist Convention in session at the time was declared an illegal organisation. The march on Westminster was banned. London was turned into an armed camp – troops were brought in. Almost the whole of the upper and middle classes were enrolled as special constables (170,000 volunteers in all), or posted to other defence services.

Despite all this a crowd of over 100,000 gathered at Kennington Common. They expected revolutionary action. But most of the radical petit bourgeois leaders of the Chartists, and especially Feargus O’Connor, had only intended a vast peaceful demonstration and not the beginning of a revolution. The people were unarmed and faced with the massive display of armed strength by the government forces and the divisions in their own ranks, the Chartist leaders gave up their plans for a mass demonstration. O’Connor begged the crowd to disperse peacefully, which it did.

Throughout the rest of the year a large section of the Chartists were preparing for an armed uprising. Serious outbreaks of fighting between soldiers and Chartists actually occurred in many places in the North. But the government was now confident. It went on the offensive and many workers including Chartist leaders were arrested. The abject end to the Kennington Common demonstration broke the back of the Chartist movement.  

Chartism was a movement in decline from this period onwards and the divisions in it were not long in coming to a head. The divisions were along class lines. Marx and Engels commented on this in 1850:

‘The present organisation of the Chartist Party is ... in a state of dissolution. The members of the petty bourgeoisie who still adhere to the party, together with the labour aristocracy, form a purely democratic faction whose programme is limited to the People’s Charter and a number of petty bourgeois reforms. The mass of workers who live in truly proletarian conditions belong to the revolutionary Chartist faction. The leader of the former faction is Feargus O’Connor and the leaders of the latter are Julian Harney and Ernest Jones.’ (CW Vol 10 p514)

At this time the main bone of contention between the two factions was the land question. O’Connor and his party wanted to use the Charter to accommodate some of the workers on small plots of land and eventually to parcel out all the land in Great Britain as a means of improving the conditions of workers in Britain. An earlier attempt to do this by means of a joint-stock company had failed. The revolutionary faction of the Chartists opposed this demand with one for the confiscation of all landed property and they insisted that it not be distributed but remain national property.

The Chartist movement, from the beginning had links with revolutionaries from the Continent and elsewhere. This gave a very definite internationalist content to Chartism. The second national Chartist petition presented to Parliament in 1842, for example, included a call for the repeal of the Union with Ireland. And Chartists were involved in agitation on the Irish and Polish questions in this period. Marx and Engels had made links with the revolutionary wing of Chartism especially through contacts the latter had with the Communist League. Harney’s paper The Red Republican published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto in 1850. And Marx and Engels believed that their influence on the revolutionary wing of Chartism had hastened the split between the two factions within Chartism. Nevertheless, in spite of this, by 1850 they were extremely pessimistic about future developments within Chartism:

‘Despite this split and their [the revolutionary wing’s] more extreme demands, the memory of the circumstances in which the abolition of the Corn Laws went through [an alliance between the working class and radical bourgeoisie against the landed aristocracy – Tories] is responsible for the Chartists’ persisting notion that in the next crisis they will once again have to ally themselves with the industrial bourgeoisie, the financial reformers, and help to crush their enemies in return for which they will have to extract concessions from them for themselves. This will in any case be the Chartists’ position in the approaching crisis. The revolutionary movement proper cannot begin in Britain until the Charter has been carried through....’ (ibid p515-6)

Marx and Engels’ relations with Harney soon deteriorated when he took a neutral attitude to a split in the Communist League. Harney had also been arguing, since the middle of 1850, in favour of allying the National Charter Association with the expanding, non-radical Trade Union organisations and Cooperatives. Marx and Engels’ relations with Ernest Jones however became much closer. More than any other Chartist leader Jones stressed the incompatibility of interests between capital and labour and the necessity of the conquest of political power by the working class. He was the closest politically to the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels.

Lenin has argued that the existence of a mass revolutionary socialist workers party depended on the fusion of two social movements: ‘one, a spontaneous movement, a popular movement within the working class, the other, the movement of social thought in the direction of the theory of Marx and Engels....’ (CW Vol 4 p260). The union of Chartism with scientific socialism was historically not to occur. For precisely at the time when scientific socialism became an influence in the Chartist movement, that movement was in decline. Not only had Chartism suffered a major defeat in 1848 but the conditions in Britain which had given rise to that movement were beginning to change.

In the third quarter of the nineteenth century (1850-75) British capitalism, with the markets of the world under its domination, rapidly expanded and was able to relax the extreme pressure upon the working class which had been ever present in the 1830s and 1840s. Wages rose and conditions improved especially for the skilled craftsmen who more and more assumed the leadership of the working class. These privileged workers turned aside from Chartism to build up their ‘New Model’ trade unions and their Cooperative Societies. ‘The spirit of rebellion died and proposals for radical reconstruction of society were brushed aside.’ (GDH Cole op cit p338.)

Although Ernest Jones continued the struggle, his following declined despite an attempt to revive the Chartist movement in 1853. More and more the Chartists argued for the need to ally themselves with the industrial bourgeoisie in order to extract concessions from them. And in 1858 when Ernest Jones called a conference to bring about collaboration between the working class and middle class reformers to achieve political reform, his relations with Marx and Engels deteriorated. Engels commented on this in a famous letter to Marx, in which he drew the connection between opportunism and Britain’s monopoly of the world market.

‘The business with Jones is very disgusting. He has held a meeting here and spoken along the lines of the new alliance. After this affair one is really almost driven to believe that the English proletarian movement in its old traditional Chartist form must perish completely before it can develop in a new, viable form. And yet one cannot foresee what this new form will look like. For the rest, it seems to me that Jones’ new move, taken in conjunction with the former more or less successful attempts at such an alliance, is bound up with the fact that the English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable. The only thing that would help here would be a few thoroughly bad years....’ (7 October 1858)

Engels associates opportunism with Britain’s domination of the world market. He gives it a materialist foundation. It was a position which was to be refined and developed at a later stage.


The third quarter of the nineteenth century saw annual rates of industrial expansion of 2-3% a year. Most significantly there was a much greater increase in output per head. So that while the share of wages in the national income declined after 1850, real wages rose substantially – estimates say by as much as one third. By far the greater part of these real wage increases went to a small privileged stratum of skilled workers and craftsmen – the labour aristocracy.

Various estimates of the size of the labour aristocracy put it at between 10% and 15% of the working class. And weekly wages of this layer were on average between 50% and 85% higher than those of labourers. Trade unionism was mainly involved with the organisation of skilled workers and craftsmen. Those who did attempt to organise the unskilled workers in the towns complained that ‘strikes had failed in consequence of the aristocracy of mechanics and artisans ignoring unpaid labourers’. It became a characteristic of these ‘New Model’ trade unions for the first time to have a trained staff of salaried officials. They almost always had high subscriptions – in the region of 1 shilling a week (a labourer’s wage was in the region of 15s or less a week) – and a series of ‘friendly benefits, such as unemployment, superannuation, sickness, accident and death allowances. They were not concerned with securing control of the entire process of production but with defending their interests and protecting their jobs. These ‘New Model’ unions carried out trade practices which hinged on preventing unskilled workers from getting into the trade.

Alongside the rise of these ‘New Model’ unions emerged the Cooperative Societies. Those who joined them received a ‘dividend on purchases’, as well as interest on share capital. Whatever the claims of those skilled workers and others who sponsored such societies, the fact that shares were in the region of £1 each would rule out any benefits for the millions of workers earning around 15s or less a week. The skilled workers and craftsmen, the privileged layers of the working class with their ‘New Model’ unions and Cooperative Societies were building for themselves a stake in the capitalist system which was to have crucially important political consequences for the working class movement in Britain.

The period was not without its commercial crises which are an inevitable feature of the expansion of production under the capitalist system. Such crises forced the trade unions to fight and led to some revival in working class activity. In Britain the crisis of 1858-9 and the lockouts and strike movement of the London building workers gave enormous impetus to the struggle for a nine-hour working day. In the wake of this nine-hour movement the London Trades Council (1860) was formed and in October 1861 the Beehive – the most influential paper of its time in the labour movement in Britain – was founded. The London Trades Council participated officially at the foundation meeting of the First International (1864) and its secretary George Odger became the first and only President of the International. The Beehive was later to become the first official organ of the International. And of the 27 Englishmen who were elected on the first Central (later General) Council of the International, at least eleven were from the building trade. (Collins and Abramsky, Karl Marx and the British Labour Movement, 1965).

At the time of the founding Conference of the First International the working class movement in many countries was in its infancy and only in a few countries had it started to develop as an independent force. Such developments had to be encouraged. While it was necessary to fight against bourgeois and petit bourgeois influences in the newly developing movements, the International had to be based on real forces in those movements as well as aiding the creation of independent working class parties in many countries. The revival of the working class movement in Britain and France and the internationalist traditions, which were still a vital ingredient of these movements, offered a real foundation which could be built on. Marx put aside temporarily his work on Capital to involve himself in the organisation of the International. Marx wrote to Engels that he decided to take part because ‘this time real “powers” were involved both on the London and Paris sides’ (4 November 1864).

Marx drafted the Inaugural Address and the Provisional Rules so that the general principles of communism which they did contain would be in a form acceptable to those ‘real powers’ that made up the International – especially the English trade unions. Marx knew his task was a difficult one and he had no illusions about the English trade unions. As he wrote to Engels in summing up his task:

‘It is very difficult to frame the thing so that our view should appear in a form acceptable from the present stand-point of the workers’ movement. In a few weeks the same people will be holding meetings for the franchise with Bright and Cobden [bourgeois radicals, free traders and Liberals]. It will take time before the awakened movement allows the old boldness of speech …’ (ibid)

Marx noted in the Inaugural Address that the confidence of the English working class had been badly shaken by the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions, that the emigration of workers in the wake of the new gold discoveries had left an irreparable void in the ranks of the English proletariat and ‘others of its formerly active members were caught by the temporary bribe of greater work and wages’.

During their efforts to hammer out a uniform tactic for the proletarian struggle of the working class in various countries Marx, and later Engels, inevitably came up against the opportunism of the English working class leaders.

The International was a major influence behind the formation of the Reform League in 1865. The League agitated around two demands of the Charter – universal male suffrage and vote by ballot. Its standing committee of 12 was composed of middle class radicals led by Edmund Beales and six workers, including Cremer, Odger and Howell, who were all members of the General Council of the International. However despite Marx’s efforts to prevent the Reform League falling under the influence of the middle-class reformers, the English trade union leaders were soon to take this path of compromise with the radical bourgeoisie.

The League was financed by ‘far-sighted’ industrial capitalists and their political representatives. Between 10 November 1866 and 17 April 1867, for example, 10 Liberal politicians and manufacturers, headed by Samuel Morley and Titus Salt, made contributions totalling £1,150 to the League. Not surprisingly the Reform League qualified its demand for male suffrage with the phrase ‘registered and residential’, so deliberately excluding the large mass of labourers, casual workers and unemployed. Marx wrote to Becker on 31 August 1866 ‘Cremer and Odger have both betrayed us in the Reform League where against our wishes they have made compromises with the bourgeoisie’.

In 1866 the Reform League led massive and militant demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. At one of these the gates of Hyde Park were closed by the police. Beales, at the head of the demonstration, departed with his followers after making a formal protest to hold a meeting in Trafalgar Square. However the working class demonstrators broke down the railings and entered the park. A year later in March 1867 another demonstration in Hyde Park was banned by the government. Many wanted to call it off. But despite government threats of bringing in soldiers etc the demonstration went ahead. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people entered Hyde Park – the largest demonstration since the days of the Chartists – and the government did nothing at all.

As a result of this militant agitation, various amendments and a ‘lodger clause’ were inserted in the Reform Bill and the franchise was increased in 1867, almost four times as much as was originally intended, with a large section of the urban working class getting the vote. After the passage of the Reform Act however the English trade union leaders in the Reform League worked secretly, in exchange for payment and Home Office bribes, to mobilise the working class vote behind the Liberal Party in the 1868 general election. Working class leaders, such as Cremer and Howell, were paid electioneering expenses and £10 a head to canvass for the Liberals and to draw up reports in the constituencies. The Reform League discouraged working class representatives from standing. Money was never forthcoming from the Reform League to support such candidates. Where they stood, the Reform League conducted a campaign against them (see R Harrison, Before the Socialists, 1965). Marx’s remarks, in support of the mandate of Maltman Barry to the Hague Congress of the International in September 1872 were clearly justified:

‘... it does credit to Barry that he is not one of the so-called leaders of the English workers, since these men are more or less bribed by the bourgeoisie and the government.’

They had indeed sold out to ‘Gladstone, Morley, Dilke and others’ (Marx).

In a speech on the trade unions to the London Conference of the International in 1871 Marx again pointed to the limitations of the English trade unions. They constituted an ‘aristocratic minority’. The poor workers could not belong to them. The same applied to workers born in the East End of London where one out of ten belonged to the trade unions. Marx argued that the trade unions in themselves were powerless – they would remain a minority. They did not have the mass of proletarians behind them whereas the International could directly influence the workers. It was the only association the workers fully trusted.

Marx and Engels’ position on the Irish question, adopted by the International, also forced them into conflict with the English trade union leaders. After Marx had defended the Fenian movement in the International in 1869 and attacked Gladstone for his brutal policies, as well as his hypocrisy, English trade union representatives such as Odger and Mottershead strongly objected and defended Gladstone. Three English trade unions left the International because of its principled position on Ireland. Nevertheless the International was still able to organise massive demonstrations in support of Irish prisoners (see ‘Marx and Engels on Ireland’, FRFI 7). Engels was certainly justified in saying some time later, when asked about the attitude of English workers to the Irish movement, ‘the masses are for the Irish. The organisations and labour aristocracy in general, follow Gladstone and the liberal bourgeoisie and do not go further than these’. (See also British Colonialism and Underdevelopment below.)

Marx and Engels also came into conflict with these same leaders over the Paris Commune. After the workers of Paris had seized power in March 1871 for a period of two months, Marx wrote a brilliant defence of their heroic action on behalf of the International – the Civil War in France. Odger and Lucraft, influential trade union leaders and members of the General Council, were severely attacked in British newspapers because of this. As a result they decided to resign from the General Council.

The rapid expansion of British capitalism in the period after 1850 was based on Britain’s domination of the world market and it had allowed the bourgeoisie to make some concessions to the working class without fear of losing political and economic power. The leaders of the British working class were all too ready to accept. As Engels wrote, in 1874 in an article ‘The English Elections’:

‘As regards the workers it must be stated, to begin with, that no separate political working class party has existed in England since the downfall of the Chartist Party in the fifties. This is understandable in a country in which the working class has shared more than anywhere else in the advantages of the immense expansion of its large-scale industry. Nor could it have been otherwise in an England that ruled the world market; and certainly not in a country where the ruling classes have set themselves the task of carrying out, parallel with other concessions, one point of the Chartists’ programme, the People’s Charter, after another...

Wherever the workers lately took part in general politics in particular organisations they did so almost exclusively as the extreme left wing of the “great Liberal Party” ...

In order to get into Parliament the “Labour leaders” had recourse, in the first place, to the votes and money of the bourgeoisie and only in the second place to the votes of the workers themselves. But by doing so they ceased to be workers’ candidates and turned themselves into bourgeois candidates. They did not appeal to a working class party that still had to be formed but to the bourgeois “great Liberal Party”....’

The British ruling class would have little to fear even from a separate political party – a ‘bourgeois’ Labour Party – led by such people when eventually it was formed.


If the political dormancy of the British working class during the third quarter of the nineteenth century was rooted in Britain’s monopoly of the world market, then the breaking up of that monopoly would see a revival of the fighting spirit of the British working class. Since 1879 American and German competition had been putting an end to the English monopoly of the world market. A chronic state of stagnation had existed in all the dominant branches of industry since 1876.

In the 1892 Preface to his book The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844 Engels gives a summary of the developments over the previous forty years and points to new important possibilities with the break up of England’s monopoly:

‘The truth is this: during the period of England’s industrial monopoly the English working-class have, to a certain extent, shared in the benefits of the monopoly. These benefits were very unequally parcelled out amongst them; the privileged minority pocketed most, but even the great mass had, at least, a temporary share now and then. And that is the reason why, since the dying out of Owenism, there has been no Socialism in England. With the breakdown of that monopoly, the English working-class will lose that privileged position; it will find itself generally – the privileged and leading minority not excepted – on a level with its fellow workers abroad. And that is the reason why there will be Socialism again in England.’

This passage, included in the 1892 Preface, was part of an article written in 1885 a few years before the new unions of unskilled workers dramatically changed the face of the working class movement in Britain. In 1892 Engels was able to hail this development. With irony he pointed out that there was indeed plenty of ‘socialism of all shades’ again in England. It had even become a ‘momentary fashion among bourgeois circles’. But far more important than this, ‘even more important than the actual progress socialism has made in England generally’ Engels considered to be ‘the revival of the East End of London’.

‘That immense haunt of misery is no longer the stagnant pool it was six years ago. It has shaken off its torpid despair, has returned to life, and has become the home of what is called the “New Unionism”; that is to say, of the organisation of the great mass of “unskilled” workers. This organisation may to a great extent adopt the form of the old Unions of “skilled” workers, but it is essentially different in character. The old Unions preserve the traditions of the time when they were founded, and look upon the wages system as a once for all established, final fact, which they at best can modify in the interest of their members. The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken; their founders and promoters were Socialists either consciously or by feeling; the masses, whose adhesion gave them strength, were rough, neglected, looked down upon by the working-class aristocracy; but they had this immense advantage, that their minds were virgin soil, entirely free from the inherited “respectable” bourgeois prejudices which hampered the brains of the better situated “old” Unionists. And thus we see now these new Unions taking the lead of the working-class movement generally, and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud “old” Unions.

Undoubtedly, the East Enders have committed colossal blunders; so have their predecessors, and so do the doctrinaire Socialists who pooh-pooh them. A large class, like a great nation, never learns better or quicker than by undergoing the consequences of its own mistakes. And for all the faults committed in past, present, and future, the revival of the East End of London remains one of the greatest and most fruitful facts of this fin de siècle, and glad and proud I am to have lived to see it.’

Engels died in 1895. His revolutionary optimism eventually proved unjustified. The English working class had definitely awoken and the new unions won major victories against the old unions and the employers. But in the end leaders such as John Burns, Ben Tillett, Keir Hardie were not able to resist the opportunism of the old union structure with its army of paid and bought off officials. While individuals from the socialist organisations helped to build and lead the new unions, revolutionary socialist organisations like the Social Democratic Federation proved to be too divisive and sectarian to seize the opportunity that confronted them. Engels spoke of this in a letter to Sorge:

‘The Social Democratic Federation ... have contrived to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. This theory is to be forced down the throats of the workers at once and without development as articles of faith, instead of making the workers raise themselves to its level by dint of their own class instinct.’ (12 May 1894)

That is why, Engels went on, it remains a mere sect and, as Hegel says, it comes ‘from nothing, through nothing, to nothing’.

Once again in Britain the fusion of the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels with the popular movement within the working class was not to occur. One hundred years after Marx’s death that task still remains.


  • Marx and Engels, On Britain

  • Lenin, Imperialism and the split in socialism (pamphlet)

  • Lenin, Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism (pamphlet)

  • Engels, 1892 Preface to The condition of the working class in England in 1844

  • David Reed ‘Marx and Engels on Ireland’ in FRFI 7.


It is important to record here that Marx and Engels’ involvement in the Irish question also gave rise to a major change in their political assessment of the relation between the Irish national liberation struggle and the struggle of the British working class for socialism. Before 1848, Marx and Engels thought Ireland would be liberated as a result of the victory of the workers movement in Britain, they became convinced, however, that the opposite was true. The British working class would never accomplish anything until it had got rid of its present connection with Ireland. Ireland is the key to the British revolution.

They reached their new position on the basis of a concrete analysis of the relation between Britain and Ireland. That relationship significantly changed over a twenty year period. British capitalism was having a devastating effect on the development of Ireland. ‘Every time Ireland was about to develop industrially, she was crushed and reconverted into a purely agricultural land’ (Marx). So that when the Irish peasants were driven off the land in the interests of the British landed aristocracy, given the absence of any compensating industrial development, they were faced with a ‘life-and-death struggle’ to survive. As a result the national liberation movement in Ireland assumed revolutionary forms with the rise of the Fenian movement a – ‘lower orders’ movement based on the land. Over the same period, as we have seen above, the working class movement in Britain not only lost its revolutionary drive with the defeat of the Chartist movement in 1848, but also fell under the influence of the liberal bourgeoisie for a long period of time.

The British ruling class was most vulnerable in Ireland where the power of the landed aristocracy was being challenged by a revolutionary national movement based on the land. A defeat for the British ruling class in Ireland would open the way for the British socialist revolution. Provided, of course, the British working class made common cause with the Irish. The national emancipation of Ireland is the key to the British revolution. (See ‘Marx and Engels on Ireland’ FRFI 7)

As a result of their new understanding of the Irish question, Marx and Engels began to reassess the whole effect of the international expansion of British capitalism on the countries it colonised. Whereas Marx and Engels in the 1840s and 1850s emphasised the ‘revolutionary’ role of British tree trade in destroying the framework of the old society in these countries, ‘even if actuated by the vilest interests’ (Marx 1853) and in creating the basis for the development of the productive forces of the new society, by the 1880s their view had significantly changed. British colonisation of India was described in one area ‘as an act of English vandalism which pushed the indigenous people not forward but backwards’ (Marx to VI Zasulich, March 1881). In another case it was described as ‘a bleeding process, with a vengeance’ as a result of which ‘serious complications, if not a general outbreak is in store for the British government’ (Marx to Danielson, February 1881).

Again it can be seen that Marx and Engels were able to point to the major features of imperialism through their brilliant analysis of the expansion of British capitalism as it developed and these features emerged.