Letter to August Bebel, February 15, 1886

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To August Bebel in Berlin

London, 15 February, 1886[edit source]

Dear Bebel,

Your letter could not have arrived at a more opportune moment; I was in any case about to send you some further gladsome news today— of which more below.

Now as to the rumpus on the 8th inst.

The Social Democratic Federation which, despite all self-advertising reports, is an extremely weak organisation--containing good elements but led by literary and political adventurers--was brought to the verge of dissolution at the November elections by a stroke of genius on the part of these same leaders. Hyndman (pronounced Heindman) the head of the society, had taken money from the Tories (Conservatives) at the time, and with it put up two Social-Democratic candidates in two districts of London. As they had not even got any members in these two constituencies the way they would discredit themselves was to be foreseen (one got 27, the other 32 votes out of 4000--5000 respectively!). Hyndman, however, had no sooner got the Tory money than his head began violently to swell and he immediately set off to Birmingham, to Chamberlain, the present Minister, and offered him his "support" (which does not total 1000 votes in all England) if Chamberlain would guarantee him a seat in Birmingham by the help of the Liberals and would bring in an Eight Hour Bill. Chamberlain is no fool and showed him the door. Despite all attempts to hush it up, a great row about this in the Federation and threatened dissolution. So now something had to happen in order to get the thing going again.

In the meantime unemployment was increasing more and more. The collapse of England's monopoly on the world market has caused the crisis to continue unbroken since 1878 and to get worse rather than better. The distress, especially in the East End of the city, is appalling. The exceptionally hard winter, since January, added to the boundless indifference of the possessing classes, produced a considerable movement among the unemployed masses. As usual, political wirepullers tried to exploit this movement for their own ends. The Conservatives, who had just been superseded in the Government, put the responsibility for unemployment on to foreign competition (rightly) and foreign tariffs (for the most part wrongly) and preached "fair-trade," i.e., retaliatory tariffs. A workers' organisation also exists which believes mainly in retaliatory tariffs. This organisation summoned the meeting in Trafalgar Square on February 8. In the meantime the S.D.F. had not been idle either, had already held some small demonstrations and now wanted to utilise this meeting. Two meetings accordingly took place; the "fair traders" were round the Nelson Column while the S.D.F. people spoke at the north end of the Square, from the street opposite the National Gallery, which is about 25 feet above the square. Kautsky, who was there and went away before the row began, told me that the mass of the real workers had been around the "fair traders," whilst Hyndman and Co. had a mixed audience of people looking for a lark, some of them already merry. If Kautsky, who has hardly been here a year, noticed this, the gentlemen of the Federation must have seen it still more clearly. Nevertheless, when everybody already seemed to be scattering, they proceeded to carry out a favourite old idea of Hyndman's, namely a procession of "unemployed" through Pall Mall, the street of the big political, aristocratic and high-capitalist clubs, the centres of English political intrigue. The employed who followed them in order to hold a fresh meeting in Hyde Park, were mostly the types who do not want work anyhow, hawkers, loafers, police spies, pickpockets. When the aristocrats at the club windows sneered at them they broke the said windows, ditto the shop windows; they looted the wine dealers' shops and immediately set up a consumers' association for the contents in the street, so that in Hyde Park Hyndman and Co. had hastily to pocket their blood-thirsty phrases and go in for pacification. But the thing had now got going. During the procession, during this second little meeting and afterwards, the masses of the Lumpenproletariat, whom Hyndman had taken for the unemployed, streamed through some fashionable streets nearby, looted jewellers' and other shops, used the loaves and legs of mutton which they had looted solely to break windows with, and dispersed without meeting with any resistance. Only a remnant of them were broken up in Oxford Street by four, say four, policemen.

Otherwise the police were nowhere to be seen and their absence was so marked that we were not alone in being compelled to think it intentional. The chiefs of the police seem to be Conservatives who had no objection to seeing a bit of a row in this period of Liberal Government. However the Government at once set up a Commission of Inquiry and it may cost more than one of these gentlemen his job.

In addition, very half-hearted proceedings have been instituted against Hyndman & Co. which, to all appearances, will be allowed to peter out, although English law provides for very stiff sentences the moment inflammatory speeches give way to overt acts. True, the gentlemen talked a lot of bunkum about social revolution which, having regard to their audience and in the absence of any organised support amongst the masses, was sheer lunacy, but I can hardly believe that the government would be so stupid as to make martyrs of them.

These socialist gents are determined to conjure up overnight a movement which, here as elsewhere, necessarily calls for years of work,— though, once it has got going and has been imposed on the masses by historical events, it will admittedly advance far more rapidly here than on the Continent. But men of this type cannot wait — hence these childish pranks such as we are otherwise wont to see only among the anarchists.

The alarm of the philistines lasted four days and has now finally abated. One good thing about it is that the existence of poverty, which the Liberals simply denied and the Conservatives tried to exploit solely for their own ends, has now come to be recognised, and people see that something has got to be done, if only for appearances’ sake. But the subscription fund started by the LORD MAYOR amounted, by Saturday, to barely £ 20,000 and, given the number of unemployed, would barely last out 2 days! But of one thing at least we have again received proof: Until something happens to frighten them, the propertied classes are totally indifferent to the destitution of the masses and I’m not at all sure they don’t need rather more of a -fright.

Now for France. Last week saw an event of an epoch-making kind, namely the constitution of a workers’ party in the Chamber. It has only three members, and two Radicals besides, but a start has been made and the split is definitive.

Basly (pronounced Bali), a miner and then a landlord (because disciplined) from Anzin, carried out an investigation on the spot of the killing of the infamous pit manager Watrin in Decazeville. On his return, he first communicated his findings to a big meeting held on the 7 th in Paris, in the course of which the Radicals from the Chamber came off very badly.[1] On Thursday in the Chamber he made a really splendid speech when he questioned the Ministry.[2] He was left in the lurch by the whole of the extreme Left. The only ones to speak in support of him were the two other working men, Boyer (of Marseilles, ex-anarchist) and Camélinat (ex-Proudhonist, Communard refugee), besides which he was applauded by Clovis Hugues and Planteau, while the other extreme Radicals were as if thunderstruck by this first bold, independent move on the part of the French proletariat in the Chamber.

(Between ourselves, Basly is completely under the influence of our men, Lafargue, Guesde, etc., of whose theoretical advice he is greatly in need and which he gladly accepts.)

I am sending you the Cri du Peuple with a full account of this historic sitting which I suggest you study. It’s well worth the trouble. The importance of the rupture has been confirmed by Longuet who has just been over here and who, as Clemenceau’s friend and felloweditor, spoke with some disapproval of this unparliamentary behaviour on the part of the workers.

So in Paris, too, we now have our people in parliament, and of this I am glad, not only for the sake of the French to whose progress it will give a tremendous impetus, but also for the sake of our parliamentary group, some of whose members might yet learn much about boldness of approach from the above; for now we also have foreigners whom we can hold up as an example to the faint-hearts and weaklings.

The best part of it is that the Radicals proposed these chaps in the hope of being able to manipulate them, and now their trouble has been for nothing. I, too, felt very doubtful about Camélinat as a former Proudhonist, but a point in his favour was that, when he came here as a refugee, he immediately sought work in Birmingham (he is one of the best engravers) and had nothing to do with refugee politics.

Time for the post.



  1. See E.J.Basly's speech at a meeting in Théâtre du Château d'Eau on 7 February 1886 (Le Socialiste, No. 25, 13 February 1886).
  2. See Basly's speech in the Chamber of Deputies on 11 February 1886 (Le Cri du Peuple, No. 837, 12 February 1886).