A Meeting (March 20, 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 20 March 1855


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Printed according to the newspaper
First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 141, March 24, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.98-101), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980

This article was first published in English in the collection Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Articles on Britain, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1971, pp. 229-32. p. 98

London, March 20. For several months The Morning Advertiser has endeavoured to set up a propaganda society under the name of National and Constitutional Association for the purpose of overthrowing the oligarchic regime. After many preparations, appeals, subscriptions, etc., a public meeting was at last called for last Friday at the London Tavern[1]. It was to be the birthday of the new, much advertised Association. Long before the meeting opened the great hall was crowded with working men, and the self-appointed leaders of the new movement, when they appeared at last, had difficulty in finding room on the platform. Mr. James Taylor, made chairman, read letters from Layard, Sir George de Lacy Evans, Wakley, Sir James Duke, Sir John Shelley, and others, who gave assurances of their sympathy for the aims of the Association, but at the same time under various pretexts declined the invitation to appear in person. Then an "Address to the People" was read. In it, the conduct of the war in the East and the ministerial crisis were spotlighted and then followed the declaration that

"there were 'practical men of every class, and especially the middle class, with all the attributes for governing the country'".

This clumsy allusion to the special claims of the middle class was received with loud hisses.

"The chief object of this Association," continues the address, "will be to destroy the aristocratical monopoly of power and place, which has proved fatal to the best interests of the country. Among its collateral objects will be included the abolition of the system of secret diplomacy [...]. It will be the peculiar mission of this Association to address itself to the constituencies of the United Kingdom, warning and exhorting them to be careful into whose hands they entrust the liberties and resources of the country and to shrink from bestowing their votes any longer on the mere nonentities of Aristocracy and Wealth, and their nominees...."

Thereupon Mr. Beale rose and seconded the first motion in a lengthy speech:

"...The perilous state of public affairs, and the manifest hopelessness of improvement -under the present oligarchical system, which has usurped the functions of Government, monopolised place and privilege, and brought disgrace and disaster upon the country, makes it incumbent on the people to unite, in order to prevent a continuation of the existing [...] system.... That an Association be therefore now formed; and be called The National and Constitutional Association.

Mr. Nicolay, one of the Marylebone luminaries, supported the motion. So did Apsley Pellatt, M.P., saying the people would

"go about their work of reforming the Government with determination, temperance, steadiness, and the resolution of the Ironsides[2] of Cromwell. [...] The electors of England had it in their own hands to rectify every abuse, if they determined to send honest men to Parliament free of expense; but they could never expect to be honestly represented whilst a man like Lord Ebrington only got returned to Parliament t for Marylebone at an expense of £5,000, and the unsuccessful candidate[3] had to spend upwards of £3,000".

Mr. Murrough, M.P., now rose, but after considerable opposition was forced to give way to George Harrison (a worker and Chartist from Nottingham).

"This movement," Harrison said, "was an attempt of the middle classes to get the government into their own hands, to divide amongst themselves the places and the pensions, and establish a worse oligarchy than that now in existence."

He then read an amendement[4] in which he denounced equally the landed aristocracy and monied aristocracy as enemies of the people and declared that the only way to regenerate the nation was to introduce the People's Charter[5] with its five points: universal suffrage, vote by ballot, equal constituencies, annual parliaments and abolition of the property qualification.

Ernest Jones (the Chartist leader, member of an aristocratic family) speaking in support of the amendement said among other things:

"The people would be destroying their own position were they to support this movement of the middle classes to get into their own hands place and power. There were no doubt many hungry prime ministers on the platform"—cheers[6]—"many expectant placemen." (Cheers.) "The people must not, however, ally themselves to the Cobdens, the Brights, and the moneyed interests. It was not the landed aristocracy, [...] it was the moneyed interest that opposed a humane Factory Act and turned down the Bill against the stoppage of wages[7], that had prevented the passing of a good partnership law—and it was the moneyed and manufacturing interest that always endeavoured to keep down and degrade the people. He had no objection to join at any moment in an endeavour to upset the influence of the Duke of Devonshire, et al., but he would not do so to establish in its stead that of the Duke of Devil's Dust or a Lord of Shoddy" (cheers and laughter). "It had been said the workers' movement, the Chartist movement, was dead. He declared to the reforming gentlemen of the middle class that the working class was sufficiently alive to kill any movement. It would not allow the middle class to move unless it decided to include the People's Charter and its five points in its programme. It had better not deceive itself. A repetition of the old deception was out of the question."

After some further discussion, amid considerable commotion, the chairman attempted to get rid of the amendement, by declaring that it was not an amendement, but he found himself compelled to change his mind. The amendement was put to the vote and passed with a majority of at least ten to one, with loud acclamation and waving of hats. After declaring the amendement passed, the chairman stated amid loud laughter that he still believed the majority of the people present was in favour of founding the Constitutional and National Association. They would therefore proceed with its organisation and later address another appeal to the public; he intimated, though covertly, that only persons with membership cards would be admitted in future to avoid opposition. The Chartists in high spirits complimented the chairman with a vote of thanks, and the meeting broke up.

It cannot be denied that logic was on the side of the Chartists, even from the standpoint of the publicly proclaimed principles of the Association. It wants to overthrow the oligarchy by an appeal from the Ministry to Parliament. But what is the Ministry? The creation of the parliamentary majority. Or it wants to overthrow Parliament by appealing to the electors. But what is Parliament? The freely elected representation of the electors. Hence there remains only: extension of the franchise. Those who refuse to broaden the franchise to cover the whole of the people by adopting the People's Charter are admitting that they wish to replace the old aristocracy by a new one. Vis-à-vis the existing oligarchy they wish to speak in the name of the people, but at the same time they would like to prevent the people from appearing in person when they call it.

  1. A detailed account of this meeting, held on March 16, 1855, was published in The Morning Advertiser, No. 19887, March 17, 1855. Reports based on it appeared in other newspapers. Below Marx quotes from a report printed in The Morning Post, No. 25338, March 19, 1855.—Ed.
  2. Marx uses the English word. Ironsides was the name given to Oliver Cromwell's soldiers in the English bourgeois revolution after Cromwell was referred to as "Old Ironsides" sides" following the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644.—Ed.
  3. b J. Bell.—Ed.
  4. Marx uses the French spelling.—Ed.
  5. The People's Charter, which contained the demands of the Chartists, was published in the form of a Parliamentary Bill on May 8, 1838. It contained six points: universal suffrage (for men of 21 and over), annual parliaments, vote by ballot, equal electoral districts, abolition of the property qualification of MPs and payment of MPs. Petitions urging the adoption of the People's Charter were turned down by Parliament in 1839, 1842 and 1848.
    Echoing the Chartist speakers at the meeting, Marx further mentions the Charter's five basic demands, omitting the sixth—payment of MPs.
  6. Marx uses the English word.—Ed.
  7. Marx uses the English phrase "stoppage of wages".—Ed.