The Greatest Public Relations Coup of All Time

The branding campaign which transformed the labor movement into the "Worldwide Communist Conspiracy"

By Jack Barkstrom

The Labor Movement - Fertile ground for communist ideas or marketing target?

Friedrich Engels in his book, The Condition of the Working Class in England, published in 1845, describes some of the living conditions in the working class neighborhoods of Manchester. "...In one of these courts there stands directly at the entrance, at the end of the covered passage, a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement"[1] Describing the housing available for families at another point he writes: "It often happens that a whole Irish family is crowded into one bed; often a heap of filthy straw or quilts of old sacking cover all in an indiscriminate heap, where all alike are degraded by want, stolidity, and wretchedness...." [2] The food available for workers was of poor quality, even unhealthy or dangerous to eat. "The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, tough, taken from old, often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then, often half decayed." [3] Food offered for sale was so bad that authorities had taken action against the vendors. "...In one case, sixty-four stuffed Christmas geese were seized which had proved unsaleable in Liverpool, and had been forwarded to Manchester, where they were brought to market foul and rotten." [4]

"The Condition of the Working Class in England" was not Engels' first foray into documentary reporting. His first investigative journalism project had come in 1839 when his "Letters from Wuppertal" was published in the paper Telegraph für Deutschland (Telegraph for Germany) Barmen, or Wuppertal, was the Rhineland factory town, on the Wupper River, near the city of Düsseldorf, where Engels had been born. It had also been the source of his family's wealth, where his great-grandfather had established a yarn business complete with a yarn-bleaching facility. If the factory waste was responsible for turning the Wupper River red, the Engels family had taken a greater interest in the welfare of its employees, refusing to use child labor and providing employees with homes, gardens, and schools. [5]

Engels' family was the exception, and what he observed in the factories and among workers was a production system indifferent to the conditions under which workers worked and an environment far removed from the romanticized ideal of what Germany was supposed to be. In one factory the workers were forced to work in "in low rooms where people breathe in more coal fumes and dust than oxygen." Some were unable to find, or could not afford, permanent housing. Some had ".... no fixed abode or definite employment, who crawl out of their refuges, haystacks, stables, etc., at dawn, if they have not spent the night on a dungheap or on a staircase..." Alcoholism contributed to early death. Three out of five leather workers workers died from excess consumption of cheap, and widely available toward the end of the 1820s, schnapps.[6]

The Labor Movement - Increasingly violent confrontation

Engels, in "The Condition of the Working Class in England," provides a brief history of the labor movement - its growing strength, early successes and defeats, and the growing, and sometimes violent, conflict between the workers and factory owners. Engels did recognize that the power of unions had to be seen in the context of supply and demand in the labor market and the larger economic forces which had an impact on the demand for labor. In times of crisis, they might have to accept lower wages in order to keep their employer afloat. [7]

In England, the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, forbade all working-class combinations, i.e., union organizations, considered criminal conspiracies in restraint of trade.[8] In 1824, Parliament repealed the Combination Acts and, short of striking, gave workers a little more freedom to organize. There had been strikes prior to 1824. In 1812, a general strike of weavers had taken place in Glasgow. Scottish miners had called a general strike in 1818. Weavers in Glasgow had repeated their strike in 1822. Feelings had run high and two workers who refused to join the association were considered traitors, and were blinded when acid was thrown in their faces.[9]

Engels conceded that unions did contribute to tension and nourished grudges held by workers against the property-owning classes. He cites several examples of violent behavior. A manufacturer in Hyde, named Ashton, was shot while crossing a field in 1831. The murderer was never discovered. On Friday, September 29, 1843 an attempt to blow up the saw-works of Padgin in Sheffield occurred, using a pipe filled with gunpowder. While not totally successful, the attempt did extensive damage. The next day an explosion at the Ibbetson knife and file works near Sheffield, caused extensive damage. Some of the workers who came to view the results later regretted 'that the whole concern was not blown into the air.' In October, there was an attempt to set fire to the factory of Ainsworth and Compton at Bolton. While it did no damage, it was the third or fourth attempt on the same factory. In January 1844 an explosion at the Bently & White sawmill in Lancashire caused considerable damage. In February, the Soho Wheel Works in Sheffield were destroyed in a fire.[10]

Displaced Workers - Whose Responsibility?

The problem of unemployment seems to be a recent phenomenon, something which only began with the Industrial Revolution. Even today, where a range of countries, from Greece to Zimbabwe to Spain and Turkey, and even the United States, suffer from high unemployment rates, particularly among the young, a universal theme among politicians is the need to create jobs. In the world of the Internet, unemployment has been blamed on the advent of computer technology, on automation and advances in machinery and equipment which allow manufacturers to produce greater quantities of goods with fewer people. Yet it has been a problem of many societies and economies, past and present, not just those emerging from, during, or after the start of the Industrial Revolution. There are any number of questions relating to the causes of unemployment. Much of the debate however, is not about causation, and the factors which contributed to unemployment but rather about responsibility for the solution. At the center of the debate is a key question - who is responsible for the economic well-being of the individual - the state, the private employer, the individual themselves, or, essentially, no one?

From the perspective of Marx and Engels, factory production loomed large, and they focused primarily on the evils of the factory system and the problems experienced by workers. As a result, there is a tendency, when discussing Communism or Marxist theory, to focus almost entirely on the industrial sector of the economy, the conflict between capitalist owners and the working class, and the ups and downs of the industrial business cycle. In essence, capitalism and factory owners created the system and they should be responsible for fixing it.

Yet, in the larger context, there remained the question of responsibility. Were factory owners or employers responsible for workers because they lived in the vicinity of the factory, or had once worked at the factory, or because the Industrial Revolution and its factories had put people out of work? They could hardly be blamed for the fact that their factories, during periods of high demand, offered better economic opportunities than rural areas, which had trouble sustaining the number of peasants trying to survive off the land. If the small craftsmen and artisans blamed the rise of the factory system for their difficulties, economic changes provided them with no assurance or guarantees of survival or prosperity.

Were employers responsible for the economic conditions of an entire country or for more distant regions within a country outside of their factory district? Even if they couldn't hire everyone, should their prosperity be shared, for non-workers or other localities, through taxation? Did employers have a responsibility for workers beyond the borders of their own country, for people suffering in other countries?

Such questions may seem far-fetched. Yet there is a parallel in the modern world. Capitalists of the past have been condemned for their indifference to the conditions in their factories and their treatment of those who worked for them. At the same time, modern concern for others seems to 'stop at the border' when it comes to conditions in the wider world. While reporting and communications have made us aware of suffering in other parts of the world and the conditions under which many must live. There may be some sympathy at the individual level but collectively the modern world has shown little inclination to act.

Major powers have come face-to-face with the problems of migration. Countries, such as the United States and the member states of the European Union, and lesser states in Africa, South America, and Asia are finding themselves overwhelmed, when it comes to absorbing the great influx of migrants. The plight of the Rohingya, forced out of Myanmar into Bangladesh, is only the most current instance of displacement. Syrian and Iraqi refugees have fled to camps in Jordan and Turkey and beyond, to Europe. Somali refugees have fled into Kenya while South Africa has had to deal with an influx of refugees from the north. Refugees from Nigeria and other sub-Saharan states have settled in camps in Libya, in hopes of reaching Europe across the Mediterranean. Although there is a growing awareness of the conditions - poverty, repression, crime, and conflict - under which people live and from which they are fleeing, the only solution is to block their escape routes and confine them to their home countries. Politically, the solution is not to solve the problem but to keep it manageable by stopping it at the border and keeping it out of sight.

The labor movement and unions faced two formidable economic hurdles in their struggle with capitalists. The first was, oddly enough, a problem they shared in common with factory owners. Both were, in a sense, 'captives of the market.' They had to rely on the willingness of consumers to buy the products they manufactured. If demand for their product fell, the situation when there was an economic downturn, the factories might be forced to shut down and lay off their workers. The factory owners were in a position to wait until market conditions improved. Workers, who relied on wages for survival, had fewer options. The second problem was that workers were in competition with each other. The labor market, of which workers were themselves a part, was almost a market independent from the overall market for goods - workers sold their services to employers and were forced to compete for scarce jobs. In addition, the labor market was further subdivided into various categories. The nature of the work, or the type of production involved, created natural divisions. Agricultural workers, who almost worked alone or in small groups, were geographically scattered among small or large farms, whereas factory workers congregated in single buildings or factory complexes. Miners and rail workers, who supplied the factories, were in some ways in competition with their factory counterparts. Skilled workers were in a different market than unskilled workers. Unskilled workers, with factory jobs that were easily learned and required little training, were 'interchangeable' and easily replaced by other unskilled workers. There was also a racial divide. White workers resented having to compete with African-Americans, often freed slaves, who were willing to work for less.

If capitalist employers can be criticized for their indifference to factory conditions, governments showed little inclination to intervene or set a better example. At one extreme, governments sided with the owners, and used force to enforce owner demands. The Prussian government sent in troops to deal with the revolt of the Silesian weavers in 1844.[11] At the other extreme were government efforts to directly intervene to help distressed workers, which proved too costly to sustain. In 1848, the French government had tried a public works program for the unemployed of Paris, but then had to deal with the consequences of its cost. It lost the support of the countryside when it imposed an additional tax on landowners of forty-five percent.[12], [13]

It was not that the labor movement was without supporters or that Industrial Age society was totally indifferent concerning what came to be known as 'the Social Question.' In 1839, Thomas Carlyle had published an essay called the 'Condition of England' which dealt with a range of questions: working conditions within factories, the problem of housing in densely populated areas, and the 'pauperization'- the progressive impoverishment of the lower social strata.[14] The plight of the Silesian weavers resulted in collections for the Silesians in the textile towns of the Rhineland. In March 1844, some three months before the uprising, the 'Association for the Alleviation of Need Among the Weavers and Spinners of Silesia' was founded in Breslau.[15]

The Chartist Movement in England

The face of the labor struggle took many forms, depending on where it developed. While there were many similarities and parallel stories, the history of the labor movement was different in each country. England clearly did not entirely escape the violence which came with the labor movement, but over time it seemed to reach an accommodation with the movement which limited major unrest. In spite of that, there were large scale demonstrations which occurred following seemingly liberal times. There was the London dockworkers strike of 1889, which involved some 60,000 workers, and the General Strike of 1926, which involved one sixth of the working population of England, Scotland, and Wales, and nearly every form of industry, from mining and transport to iron and steel manufacturing to building trades and electric and power production.[16], [17]

The labor movement had gotten off to a rather rocky start in England. The Seditious Meetings Act, which limited the size of public gatherings to no more than fifty people, was passed in 1795 and was followed in 1799 and 1800 by the Combination Acts, which made any form of association illegal, whether for political purposes, or, as it impacted on labor, for the purpose of improving pay or working conditions.[18]

The background to this anti-labor legislation had been events in France, starting with the French Revolution itself, in 1789, and afterwards, the rise of Napoleon. William Pitt (the younger), had been appointed Prime Minister in December 1783, just three months after the Treaty of Paris, which recognized the independence of the American colonies, had been signed.[19] Pitt may not have initially feared the spread of French revolutionary ideas. Many in England embraced them. Thomas Paine, in 1791, published "The Rights of Man," which advocated for the abolition of the British monarchy and aristocracy, the elimination of the House of Lords, and for the granting of the right to vote to all men.[20] It was not the publication which alarmed Pitt but the popular reception which followed.

Radical political societies began forming across England, with thousands of members, including skilled working men. It did not help that the French envoy to London, Chauvelin, seemed to encourage the spread of revolutionary ideas when he publicly hosted receptions in 1792, for delegations from the Norwich Revolutionary Society, the Manchester Constitutional Society, and the London Corresponding Society. This was followed, in February 1793, by a French declaration of war on Britain. In 1794 the Pitt government suspended habeas corpus, which prevented imprisonment without trial.[21]

The atmosphere turned more threatening and violent in 1795. Protesters smashed the windows of Pitt's residence at 10 Downing Street. When the king rode with Pitt to the opening of Parliament, a crowd estimated at 200,000 hurled abuse at them. Monster meetings were being organized by radicals around the country. Between 1795 and 1800 poor harvests led to an increase in food prices, accompanied by rioting and protests, made worse by high unemployment.[22] Pitt's government not only faced domestic unrest but, in 1797, had to deal with displays of discontent within the Royal Navy. Close to home, there were mutinies in the Channel fleets anchored at Spitshead off Portsmouth and at Nore at the mouth of the Thames. Squadrons in the West Indies and the Cape of Good Hope, as well as the fleet stationed off Spain faced similar problems. Word reached England later that year that Napoleon Bonaparte had been given command of an army named the 'Army of England.' It was to deal with such threats, and continuing labor unrest that the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 were passed.[23]

It was not until October 1805, with the Battle of Trafalgar, where Lord Nelson defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet, that the invasion threat by Napoleon was all but eliminated. This did not reduce the simmering unrest or the anti-labor tendencies of the British government. In June 1812, the year of Napoleon's ill-fated Russian invasion, authorities in England executed ten men - eight hung in Manchester and two in Chester, convicted of participation in the Luddite Rebellion. Fourteen more were executed in January 1813 in York. The executions marked the end of an eighteen-month period, from November 1811 until January 1813, of destruction. The Luddites had broken into factories intent on destroying machinery, primarily the steam-driven textile looms, they believed were taking jobs away from croppers, the skilled wool-cloth finishers.[24]

The victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 eliminated a major threat, but the economic consequences of devastated Continental markets, a drop in military spending, and an influx of returning veterans sent the British economy into a post-Waterloo recession. Until full recovery around 1820, major cities and towns experienced bread riots, protests over wage reductions, and street demonstrations. Perhaps the most serious was a demonstration in August 1819, dubbed the 'Peterloo Massacre,' at St. Peter's Field near Manchester. At least 60,000 had gathered at a rally which authorities feared might become violent. Efforts to break up the rally resulted in between eleven and seventeen deaths along with 600 injuries.[25] Unrest continued into 1820. On May 1, 1820, five members of the so-called 'Cato Street Conspiracy' were executed on charges of high treason for a planned attempt to seize London, assassinate the entire cabinet of Lord Liverpool, and start a general rebellion. [26]

An improving economy from 1820 on, led to greater employment opportunities and a decrease in popular unrest. The government relaxed some restrictions, repealing the Seditious Meetings Prevention Act and the Combination Act in 1824.[27] The government had taken some steps to deal with the social problems of industrialization. It had increased the amounts spent for poor relief, starting in 1803, when expenditure had been £4.1 million to £5.7 million in 1815-16, to £7.9 million in 1817-16. In 1817, the Poor Employment Act created a loan fund of £1.75 million which was available to individuals or corporations willing to invest in employment-generating public works schemes, much of which went to cutting canals, making roads, and draining marshes. In 1819, the government passed the Cotton Factory Act, which forbade the employment of children under the age of nine, and limited the hours of work for those aged between nine and sixteen to twelve hours a day.[28]

In June 1832, Parliament passed the Great Reform Bill, which redistributed seats in Parliament, and expanded the franchise to much of the middle class by lowering the income threshold and eliminating land ownership restrictions on voting. Since the bill did not totally eliminate income restrictions, the working class failed to achieve a main goal - the right to vote. There was some social legislation which later emerged giving workers additional protection, such as the Factory Act of 1833, which reduced and regulated child and young adult labor in textile mills and required school attendance. The Act also created an inspectorate to enforce regulations.[29] Workers were, by and large, left out of the political process.[30]

Having failed to achieve their political goals within the system, many workers saw union organizations as a means to improve their power. Union membership grew, as well as militancy, and a belief that strikes were the answer. Yet, strikes, which involved union payments to support striking workers, proved a heavier financial burden than unions could bear. In response, in 1833, employers collectively began to refuse employment to union members. At the same time, the government took a harder line on union membership, arresting and imprisoning those involved in union activity. By 1835, the iconic embodiment of a nationwide union, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, which had been formed in October 1833, largely collapsed. The idea of a general union organization, which would include the unskilled, fell victim to internal divisions. Skilled trade organizations survived for the next few years, partly because they were in a stronger bargaining position when it came to employment, and partly because they limited their efforts to helping their own members.[31]

In 1836, the idea of a national organization was revived, with the foundation of the London Working Men's Association (LWMA), headed by William Lovett, a former storekeeper. In 1837, a draft of a Charter was drawn up, with six demands, which, on their surface, seemed more politically oriented than traditional labor demands: universal male suffrage, secret ballots, parliamentary constituencies of equal size, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, the payment of MPs, and finally, annual parliaments. The final draft of what would be known as the "People's Charter" was completed and published in May 1838, earning its supporters the nickname "Chartists" and marking the start of what became known as the Chartism movement.[32], [33], [34]

Chartism, as a political force with broad popular support, came to an abrupt end in 1839 when it took a violent turn, advocated revolution, and came close to fomenting a real rebellion. In February 1839 a Convention of the Industrious Classes (the National Chartist Convention) held in London was persuaded to adopt a more radical approach to reform than William Lovett. James Bronterre O'Brien and Feargus O'Connor, an Irish Protestant lawyer and publisher of the Leeds-based radical newspaper "The Northern Star," persuaded the Convention to adopt, not only the Charter, but also a statement recognizing the right of the people to arm themselves, plus a call for a general strike, if Parliament rejected their claims. In July, the House of Commons rejected both the Charter and a petition with their demands, which 1,200,000 petitioners had signed. No general strike materialized.[35] However, rioting occurred in many of the large towns and cities in the second half of the year and, in Newport, Monmouthshire, an armed rebellion began against the county government, led by John Frost, a radical draper, former mayor, and ex-magistrate. Troops called in to suppress the rebellion killed fourteen, while another ten later died of their wounds.[36]

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, Feargus O'Connor was arrested and sent to prison, along with other Chartist leaders. John Frost was sentenced to death, although the sentence was commuted to penal transportation. By June 1840 more than five hundred Chartist leaders had been imprisoned.[37] The government's victory proved only short-term. While the economy of the United Kingdom was experiencing a long-term expansion during the 1840s, it had to deal with a severe depression between 1837 and 1843.[38] In July 1840 a conference held in Manchester established a National Charter Association. When Feargus O'Connor was released from prison in the summer of 1841 he began petition efforts. The result was a greater number of signatures - more than three million - which was presented to parliament in May 1842. The House of Commons again rejected the petition.[39] If the number of petition signers suggested a growing movement, the rejection by Parliament provided a reality check. Chartism, as an influential political force, was on the decline.

The Industrial Economy and Improving Working Conditions

With the decline of the Chartist movement, labor as a political force was sidelined for several years. Surprisingly, some of the causes championed by the labor movement were advanced during the time they were out of power. The power struggle shifted from a fight between labor and factory owners to a fight between factory owners and agricultural landowners, essentially a struggle between two upper-class political powers. It might be described as a fight between one capitalist and another or as a struggle within and between the capitalist system, although the landowning class would technically not be considered capitalists. The struggle came down to a debate about the overall direction of the economy - should the United Kingdom move toward a manufacturing or industrial system or should it favor its domestic agricultural producers? It might be called a classic free trade debate - businessmen and entrepreneurs believed that the United Kingdom should export its manufactured goods and import raw materials and foodstuffs from overseas.[40] (The comparative advantage of nations, which Adam Smith had used to argue for free trade, made sense economically, although there were dangers for any island nation which carried the free market trading philosophy to extremes. In both world wars of the Twentieth Century it would be seen that a normally reliable supply of the crucial resources needed for survival could be interrupted by developments in technology - the submarine added a new element to warfare - and technological advances and political unrest were only part of the threat to imported supplies.)

In 1815 Parliament had passed the Corn Law, which banned the import of any foreign wheat until the domestic price reached 80s a quarter.[41], [42] While the bill's intent may have been to encourage domestic production, it raised the price of bread, which hit the poor the hardest. There were protest meetings across the country while the bill was debated but they did not prevent its passage. [43]

Dissatisfaction with the Corn Law was not great enough to produce political movement until 1939, when the Anti-Corn Law League was established in Manchester. The Anti-Corn Law movement was an unusual alliance of business and working class interests for somewhat divergent reasons. Workers themselves, of course, hoped lower wheat prices would mean cheaper food. Businessmen and entrepreneurs believed in the same goal - cheaper bread - but for a somewhat different reason - they hoped that cheaper food would mean that workers would be less inclined to demand higher wages. [44] Beyond the economic interests, there was also almost a mythical belief in the power of the free market, which served as a secondary motive. The movement grew in the next six years to include 225 affiliated societies in England in 1845 and another thirty-five in Scotland.[45] In May 1846, the Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, passed a repeal measure in the House of Commons and in July, got it through the House of Lords. [46] Despite expectations that there would be an immediate, and dramatic, impact on the economy, the drop in grain prices did not occur. It would take a quarter of a century, when American grains entered the market, before the economy, and the agricultural sector, felt any impact.[47]

While the repeal of the Corn Law absorbed much of the political energy of the working class, it still struggled for recognition. Yet, if progress seemed slow, advances were nevertheless being made on a number of fronts - in improved working conditions in factories, with limitations on working hours and child labor, and in living conditions in cities. In England the working classes benefited from a reform-minded spirit during the 1840s. Many writers, who were not themselves directly involved in the conflict between factory owners and workers, could observe the impact of industrialization on the poor and the country as a whole. Friedrich Engels had published "The Condition of the Working Class in England" in 1846, which summarized the observations he made while working at his family-owned cotton mills at Manchester between 1842 and 1844. In 1843 Thomas Carlyle had published "Past and Present" which criticized free-market capitalism, with its degradation of labor, exploitation, low wages, and widespread poverty.[48] Edwin Chadwick, who had helped draft the Factory Act of 1833, in 1842, would produce his "Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain" which documented the undrained streets, impure water, and crowded and unventilated buildings.[49] Benjamin Disraeli, the future Prime Minister, would publish the novel "Sybil," or "The Two Nations" in 1845 which discussed the gap between the rich and poor. [50]

Lord Ashley in 1842 would successfully push the Mines Act through Parliament. The Act prohibited girls and women, as well as boys under ten, from working underground in collieries. Graham's Factory Act of 1844 limited the hours of work for children between nine and thirteen, and women in industry. It also required that employees begin work at the same time each day - intended to prevent evasion of the law. In addition, the law provided for inspections.[51], [52] The motivation was not entirely altruistic. Many of the supporters were representatives of the landed class, who quickly condemned industrial capitalists for the treatment of their employees, a means of retaliation for their repeal of the Corn Law. In 1847, Fielden's Act established a normal working day of 10 1/2 hours for all women and young people.[53] The Public Health Act of 1848 established a General Board of Health, with an inspectorate to oversee the implementation of sanitary policy by town councils or local boards of health.[54]

The publication of the Communist Manifesto in February 1848 would have little immediate impact in England or on the labor movement there, partly because it was in German, and partly because news of revolutionary events across Europe created an excitement which buried theoretical essays - the Manifesto came out in print just as the revolutionary 'Springtime of the Peoples' was toppling the monarchies of Europe. Marx himself was thrown out of Brussels, on March 3, 1848, shortly after he arrived there. The government of England somehow managed to avoid the upheavals which gripped the Continent, although economically, it was struggling. Ireland, in 1845, suffered the loss of nearly its entire potato crop from a fungus-caused blight, marking the beginning of the Great Famine, from which nearly one million people died. Some left for England to find work or to join the ranks of the unemployed, when work was unavailable.[55] Chartism made a brief comeback, but an attempt to organize a third petition drive fizzled, when heavy rain on April 10, 1848 reduced attendance at a planned rally to 150,000 and the seemingly committed organizers ended up taking cabs across the Thames to present their petition to Parliament, which rejected the petition for a third time.[56], [57] London suffered an outbreak of cholera which claimed 14,000 lives and the stench rising from raw sewage in the Thames got so bad that it was named the 'Great Stink.'[58]

Marx, in some ways, saw attempts at reform and social improvement, not so much as a sign of progress, but as a means of keeping the existing political system in place. Whether he was at his sarcastic best, in the Communist Manifesto, he equated economists, philanthropists, and humanitarians with members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals and temperance fanatics.[59] In a sense he was not directing his criticism so much at capitalists, but at the idea of free trade or the free market, which pushed economies toward mass production in industrial and factory output. Put another way - the problem with reform measures was that they made things better, and what was needed, before the proletarian working class took any meaningful action, was for things to get worse.

When the revolutions of 1848 did not prove to be the proletarian rising which Marx and Engels hoped for, they began looking for other "catastrophes" which might make things bad enough to spur a proletarian revolution. To their dismay, they found themselves alone, for many former 'revolutionaries' seemed less interested in revolt and more interested in participating in the prosperity which industrialization was bringing. Even the city of Manchester, which had served as the stark symbol of poverty for Engels, had cleaned itself up enough to host a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in October 1851. Engels even complained that one of his former colleagues, the Owenite lecturer John Watts, had gone from being a 'radical' to a 'radical mediocrity' and bourgeois liberal. Prosperity was being used as a tool by 'free traders' such as Owen, to buy off the proletariat, and Owen was a willing broker.[60] By 1863, Engels had given up: "The English proletariat's revolutionary energy has completely evaporated," he wrote.[61]

The one remaining hope, when it came to revolution, lay in the field of economics. Marx focused on the business cycles which preceded or followed a financial crisis.[62] An economic crash would serve as the foundation - the precondition - for revolution. Engels began to follow the stock market. In 1851 he noted high levels of speculation in railway stocks and overpriced East India stock. No crash followed his observations that year. He predicted a crash in March 1852, when he noticed an increase in the number of bankruptcies in London, but then revised it to a September date, then had expectations for 1853.[63] In September 1853, Marx predicted that the commercial crisis would begin in early 1854.[64] In 1857, the predicted crisis occurred. [65] It started in America in October. Engels compared it to events in 1848, which had been a false dawn, while this was the real thing. Yet, if the crash was dramatic, by December Engels was questioning just how much of a revolution it would spark - "There are as yet few signs of revolution..." he wrote. Revolutionary zeal had been blunted by "the long period of prosperity," a demoralizing realization, from his perspective.[66] Far from lasting three or four years, the recovery occurred the following spring, thanks to developing markets in India and China.[67]

If the United Kingdom proved a more difficult nation to organize or inspire than expected, it was also more rural. In 1851, the largest occupational category remained agricultural, at slightly below two million men. Agriculture employed more workers than textiles and heavy industry combined. While it appeared that large industrial complexes were representative of industry, most production was done in smaller facilities, more workshops than factories.[68] Small shop or not, Britain was outproducing the world in significant areas. At mid-century, it produced half of all the world's pig-iron output, as well as coal. It consumed almost half of world cotton output. Steam engines provided 1.29 million horsepower in Britain. France was generating only 370,000 horsepower from steam and Germany only 260,000.[69] In an environment of prosperity at home and dominance in foreign markets, the doctrine of free trade became an established part of the political landscape.[70] Symbolic of this commitment (and dominance) was the Great Exhibition (Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations), which opened at the Crystal Palace in the Hyde Park district of London in May 1851 and closed in October of that year. Queen Victoria opened the Exhibition on May 1st and the exhibition hall housed over 100,000 exhibits.[71]

British dominance in trade would continue for many years, sustained by its ability to make cheap cloth, iron, and steel, coupled with its large fleet of commercial transport ships. Henry Bessemer had patented the "Bessemer" process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron in 1856.[72] The period of prosperity did not prevent calls for political reform. The middle-class Reform Union was established in March 1864 and the working class Reform League in 1865. In 1868, the Second Reform Act passed in Parliament, giving the vote to all borough householders, whether owners or not, in England. The Act added about one million voters to the electorate.[73] Manufacturing, in terms of global output, reached its high point in 1881 when it was just short of 23 percent. Its share of the world's exported manufactured goods that year was 44 per cent.[74]

In spite of these impressive figures, the United Kingdom was already suffering from an economic downturn, which had begun in 1873. Victorians would call it the Great Depression and it would not end until 1896, although its major impact was a fall in prices and profits, hitting the agricultural sector particularly hard. In addition, it was being challenged by the United States and Germany. It produced one-third of the world's steel in the early 1880s. Ten years later it had been overtaken by the United States and by 1900, Germany had moved ahead. The Great Depression was a worldwide phenomenon and, to counter English dominance, many countries had imposed tariffs. The belief in free trade prevented the UK from retaliating with its own tariffs, which allowed foreign manufacturers to flood the British market with cheaper goods. There was evidence of growing poverty among the working classes.[75]

With an increase in unemployment came an increase in social unrest. Worker demonstrations occurred throughout the country. In February 1886 there were riots in Trafalgar Square, accompanied by looting. In November 1887 police attacked demonstrators in Trafalgar Square in what became known as 'Bloody Sunday.'[76] This would be followed, in 1889, when the London dock owners rejected a demand by the dock workers for an increase in wages, Ben Tillett, founder of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourer's Union of Great Britain and Ireland, called a strike which lasted a month and had the support of almost sixty thousand men. The union made monies available for strikers from its relief fund and received an additional £30,000 in funds from Australian dock workers. [77] The dock owners gave in. Other workers were encouraged to strike and unions experienced a growth in membership. [78]

Results in the next few years were mixed. A Workmen's Compensation Act was passed in 1897, which required employers to pay for the cost of accidents in the workplace.[79] In 1901 the High Court ruled that trades unions could be sued by employers, with funds liable for confiscation if the union lost.[80] In the January 1906 general election, a landslide victory for the Liberal Party, twenty-four Liberal-Labour MPs were elected, most of whom were officials of the coalminers' unions.[81] Two legislative victories followed. The Trade Disputes Act was passed in 1906, followed by the Factory and Workshop Act in 1907.[82]


(1) Friedrich Engels, "The Condition of the Working Class in England," (Oxford;Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 61.
(2) Engels,ibid, p. 77.
(3) Engels, ibid, p. 80.
(4) Engels, ibid, p. 81.
(5) Tristam Hunt, "Marx's General: The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels," (New York:Holt Paperbacks, Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2009), p. 13.
(6) Hunt, ibid, pp. 36-37.
(7) Engels, op.cit., p. 224.
(8) Gordon A. Craig, "Europe Since 1815," 2nd edition, (New York:Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1966), p. 114.
(9) Engels, op.cit., p. 222.
(10) Engels, ibid., pp. 227-228.
(11) Christopher Clark, "Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947," (Cambridge, MA:The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006), pp. 450-452.
(12) Robert C. Tucker, ed., "The Marx-Engels Reader" 2nd edition, (New York;W.W. Norton & Company, 1978), from Karl Marx, "The Civil War in France," p. 637.
(13) Mark Almond, "Revolution: 500 years of struggle for change," (London:De Agostini Editions, 1996), p. 99.
(14) Clark, op.cit., p. 452.
(15) Clark, ibid, p. 455.
(16) Hunt, op.cit., p. 329.
(17) Craig, op.cit., pp. 674-675.
(18) David Cannadine, "Victorius Century: The United Kingdom, 1800-1906," (New York;Viking, 2017), p. 15.
(19) Cannadine, ibid, p. 11.
(20) Cannadine, ibid, p. 13.
(21) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 13-15.
(22) Cannadine, ibid, p. 13.
(23) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 13-15.
(24) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 93-95.
(25) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 130-131.
(26) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 131-132.
(27) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 137 & 142.
(28) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 137-138.
(29) Cannadine, ibid, p. 167.
(30) Craig, op.cit., pp. 111-113.
(31) Craig, ibid, pp. 115-117.
(32) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 181.
(33) Craig, op.cit., p. 117.
(34) Engels, op.cit., p. 236.
(35) Craig, op.cit., p. 118.
(36) Craig, ibid, p. 118.
(37) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 183.
(38) Cannadine, ibid, p. 202.
(39) Cannadine, ibid, p. 205.
(40) Cannadine, ibid, p. 208.
(41) Cannadine, ibid, p. 107.
(42) Craig, op.cit., p. 100.
(43) Cannadine, op.cit., pp. 107 & 136.
(44) Cannadine, ibid, p. 108.
(45) Cannadine, ibid, p. 209.
(46) Craig, op.cit., p. 121.
(47) Craig, ibid, p. 122.
(48) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 203.
(49) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 167 & 206.
(50) Cannadine, ibid, p. 208.
(51) Craig, op.cit., p. 123.
(52) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 215.
(53) Craig, op.cit., p. 123.
(54) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 238.
(55) Cannadine, ibid, p. 211.
(56) Hunt, op.cit., p. 329.
(57) Cannadine, ibid, p. 240.
(58) Cannadine, ibid, p. 260.
(59) Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings," (New York:Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005), p. 35.
(60) Hunt, op.cit., p. 185.
(61) Hunt, ibid, p. 186.
(62) David McLellan, "Karl Marx: A Biography," (New York:Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), p. 257.
(63) Hunt, op.cit., pp. 193-194.
(64) McLellan, op.cit., p. 257.
(65) McLellan, ibid, p. 272.
(66) Hunt, op.cit., p. 194.
(67) Hunt, ibid, p. 195.
(68) Cannadine, op.cit., pp. 251-252.
(69) Cannadine, ibid, p. 266.
(70) Cannadine, ibid, p. 267.
(71) Cannadine, ibid, p. 277.
(72) Cannadine, ibid, p. 320.
(73) Cannadine, ibid, p. 339.
(74) Cannadine, ibid, p. 388.
(75) Cannadine, ibid, pp. 393-394.
(76) Hunt, op.cit., p. 328.
(77) Hunt, ibid, p. 329.
(78) Cannadine, op.cit., p. 397.
(79) Cannadine, ibid, p. 459.
(80) Cannadine, ibid, p. 464.
(81) Cannadine, ibid, p. 474.
(82) Cannadine, ibid, p. 521.