Letters from London (1872)

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 20 April 1872


Series of articles from Engels published in the Italian newspaper La Plebe

Published in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 23

Note from MIA :

Engels’s Letters from London appeared in La Plebe, the newspaper of the International’s sections in Italy, early in April 1872, and continued throughout the year. Early in 1873, Engels’s co-operation with La Plebe was temporarily interrupted due to government reprisals against the paper’s editors. La Plebe was published under the editorship of E. Bignami in Lodi between 1868 and 1875, and in Milan between 1875 and 1883. Up to the early seventies the newspaper followed a bourgeois-democratic line, later it became socialist. In 1872-73 La Plebe played an important role in the struggle against the anarchist influence in the Italian working-class movement. Engels’s contributions greatly promoted the paper’s success. In 1882, the first independent party of the Italian proletariat the Workers’ Party — formed around La Plebe.

I. The English Agricultural Labourers' Strike[edit source]

Note from MECW :

First published in La Plebe, No. 48, April 24, 1872

This article was published in English for the first time in Marx and Engels, Articles on Britain, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1971.

This article marked the beginning of Engels’ regular contributions to the Italian newspaper La Plebe which continued until the end of 1872. Before this, in 1871, the newspaper published extracts from Engels’ letters and some documents of the General Council of the International which he had sent to Italy. At the request of the editor Enrico Bignami, Engels wrote several articles. The first article was supplied with the note: “Under this heading we shall henceforth print letters which one respected citizen has pledged to write to us from London.” Engels discontinued his contributions at the beginning of 1873 because government persecution made the regular publication of the newspaper impossible, and resumed them in 1877. In this volume the editorial subtitles of this and most of the other articles of the series correspond to their titles in Gianni Bosio’s collection Karl Marx. Friedrich Engels. Scritti italiani, Milan-Rome, 1955.

London, April 20, 1872

The labour movement in England has made enormous progress in the last few days. It has established itself—solidly—among the agricultural labourers. In Great Britain, as is well known, all the land belongs to an extremely small number of large landowners who receive, in the form of rent, annual incomes ranging from 100,000 lire in the case of the poorest to several million for the richest. The Marquis of Westminster enjoys an annual income of over 10 million lire.

The land is divided up into large lots, worked by a small number of agricultural labourers, with the aid of machines, on behalf of the tenant farmer. There are no small peasant proprietors. The number of agricultural workers, already small in proportion to the area of land they cultivate is decreasing every year as a result of the introduction of new machinery. Hence the English agricultural labourers—ignorant, slaves of the soil as were never seen before and at the same time victims of competition—form the lowest paid class of the population. On several occasions they have rebelled against their hard fate. In 1831, in the south of England, they burned the farmers’ corn and hay ricks.[1] A few years ago they did the same thing in Yorkshire. From time to time there have been attempts at setting up resistance societies among them, but with no real results. The present movement, however, has in a few weeks assumed dimensions which guarantee it an enormous success. This movement began among the labourers of Warwickshire. They demanded a rise in their wages from 11 or 12 shillings (13 or 14 francs) a week to 16 shillings (19 francs). In order to obtain it they formed a resistance society and went on strike.[2] There was general horror among the landowners, farmers and Tories of the county; the labourers, slaves in body and mind, after over a thousand years were daring to rebel against the authority of the masters! And they really did rebel. They struck with such effect that in two or three weeks the rebellion spread to all the labourers not just of Warwickshire but of the eight neighbouring counties. The union of agricultural labourers was for the frightened landlords and farmers what the International is for the reactionary governments of Europe: the scarecrow at the mere mention of whose name they quake. And they mounted an opposition, but in vain; the union, helped by the counsel and by the experience of the resistance societies of the industrial workers, grew and became more solid every day. It was supported, moreover, by the public opinion of the bourgeoisie itself. The bourgeoisie, despite its contract of political alliance with the aristocracy, permanently wages a sort of little economic war with it. Since at present it is enjoying a state of great industrial prosperity in which it needs many workers, nearly all the agricultural labourers on strike found themselves transported to the towns, where they were employed and paid much better than they could have been on the land. Hence the strike was completely successful, with the landlords and farmers of all England spontaneously raising labourers’ wages by 25 and 30 per cent. From this first great victory will date a new era in the intellectual and social life of the rural proletariat, which has entered as a mass into the movement of the urban proletarians against the tyranny of capital.

Last week, the English Parliament discussed the International. Mr. Cochrane, a rabid reactionary, accused the terrible workers’ association of having ordered the Paris Commune to murder the archbishop[3] and set fire to the city! He then demanded repressive measures against the General Council which is based, for the moment, in London. Naturally the government replied that the members of the International, like all the inhabitants of England, are responsible before the law alone, and as they have not yet broken it there was no reason to persecute them.[4] It is believed that the General Council of the Association will be replying to Mr. Cochrane’s falsehoods.[5]

F. E.

“Our correspondence”

II. More about the Hague Congress[edit source]

First published in La Plebe, No. 107, October 8, 1872

This article was published in English for the first time in The Hague Congress of the First International. September 2-7, 1872. Reports and Letters, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1978.

London, October 5, 1872

I hope that the outcome of the Hague Congress will make our Italian “autonomous” friends think. They ought to know that wherever there is an organisation, some autonomy is sacrificed for the sake of unity of action. If they do not realise that the International is a society organised for struggle, and not for fine theories, I am very sorry, but one thing is certain: the great International will leave Italy to act on its own until it agrees to accept the conditions common to all.

In the secret Alliance of Socialist Democracy there are three grades: international brethren (a tiny number), national brethren, and mere Alliancists. C.[6] is an international brother, just as Guillaume (chief of Bakunin’s general staff) and one or two Spaniards. Among the French delegates, five came from France under fictitious names, the others are refugees of the Commune. I attach the list, in which the names and localities of the French sections are not given so as not to betray them to the police.[7] But we have re-organised in more than thirty of the French départements and the International there is stronger and more active than ever.

It was gratifying to see the French and the Germans always voting in agreement at The Hague: it was obvious that all the wars, the conquests, the national hatred did not exist for the International. It was this union of the French and the Germans that led to all the resolutions without exception being adopted.

The reason for the transfer of the General Council to New York was: 1. The firm determination of Marx, Serraillier, Dupont and Engels not to accept a new mandate. Marx and Engels have scientific works to complete and have not had time for this in the past two years; 2. The certainty that in the event of their resignation a General Council in London would be composed as far as the French were concerned of Blanquists who, with their simulation of conspiracy, would lead to the arrest of the majority of our members in France—if they were accepted by these at all; as far as the English were concerned, of corrupt men used to selling themselves to the liberal bourgeoisie and to Mr. Gladstone’s radical agents; and as for all the other nationalities, they would not be represented at all, since Wröblewski, MacDonnell and Frankel did not want to remain on it without Marx and the others. Whatever the bourgeois press may say, we were well received by the workers of The Hague. Once the reactionaries sent a handful of drunks to us to sing the Dutch national royal anthem after the ending of the sitting. We let them sing and, passing through them, replied with the Marseillaise. Even the minority at the Congress would have been sufficient to disperse them by force. At the last sitting, on the Saturday[8], a numerous public gave the speakers a lot of applause.

Federico Engels

"Our correspondence"

III. Meeting in Hyde Park[edit source]

First Published: in Italian in La Plebe, November 17, 1872

Published in Marx and Engels on Ireland, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971

London, November 14, 1872

The Liberal English Government has at the moment no less than 42 Irish political prisoners in its prisons and treats them with quite exceptional cruelty, far worse than thieves and murderers. In the good old days of King Bomba, the head of the present Liberal cabinet, Mr. Gladstone, travelled to Italy and visited political prisoners in Naples; on his return to England he published a pamphlet which disgraced the Neapolitan Government before Europe for its unworthy treatment of political prisoners.

This does not prevent this selfsame Mr. Gladstone from treating in the very same way the Irish political prisoners, whom he continues to keep under lock and key.

The Irish members of the International in London decided to organise a giant demonstration in Hyde Park (the largest public park in London, where all the big popular meetings take place during political campaigns) to demand a general amnesty. They contacted all London’s democratic organisations and formed a committee which included MacDonnell (an Irishman), Murray (an Englishman) and Lessner (a German) — all members of the last General Council of the International.

A difficulty arose: at the last session of Parliament the government passed a law which gave it the right to regulate public meetings in London’s parks. It made use of this and had the regulation posted up to warn those who wanted to hold such a public meeting that they must give a written notification to the police two days prior to calling it, indicating the names of the speakers. This regulation carefully kept hidden from the London press destroyed with one stroke of the pen one of the most precious rights of London’s working people — the right to hold meetings in parks when and how they please. To submit to this regulation would be to sacrifice one of the people’s rights.

The Irish, who represent the most revolutionary element of the population, were not men to display such weakness. The committee unanimously decided to act as if it did not know of the existence of this regulation and to hold their meeting in defiance of the government’s decree.

Last Sunday at about three o'clock in the afternoon two enormous processions with bands and banners marched towards Hyde Park. The bands played Irish songs and the Marseillaise; almost all the banners were Irish (green with a gold harp in the middle) or red. There were only a few police agents at the entrances to the park and the columns of demonstrators marched in without meeting with any resistance. They assembled at the appointed place and the speeches began.

The spectators numbered at least thirty thousand and at least half had a green ribbon or a green leaf in their buttonhole to show they were Irish; the rest were English, German and French. The crowd was too large for all to be able to hear the speeches, and so a second meeting was organised nearby with other orators speaking on the same theme. Forceful resolutions were adopted demanding a general amnesty and the repeal of the coercion laws which keep Ireland under a permanent state of siege. At about five o'clock the demonstrators formed up into files again and left the park, thus having flouted the regulation of Gladstone’s Government.

This is the first time an Irish demonstration has been held in Hyde Park; it was very successful and even the London bourgeois press cannot deny this. It is also the first time the English and Irish sections of our population have united in friendship. These two elements of the working class, whose enmity towards each other was so much in the interests of the government and wealthy classes, are now offering one another the hand of friendship; this gratifying fact is due principally to the influence of the last General Council of the International,[9] which has always directed all its efforts to unite the workers of both peoples on a basis of complete equality. This meeting, of the 3rd November, will usher in a new era in the history of London’s working-class movement.

You might ask: “What is the government doing? Can it be that it is willing to reconcile itself to this slight? Will it allow its regulation to be flouted with impunity?”

Well, this is what it has done: it placed two police inspectors and two agents by the platforms in Hyde Park and they took down the names of the speakers. On the following day, these two inspectors brought a suit against the speakers before the Justice of the Peace. The justice sent them a summons and they have to appear before him next Saturday. This course of action makes it quite clear that they don’t intend to undertake extensive proceedings against them. The government seems to have admitted that the Irish or, as they say here, the Fenians have beaten it and will be satisfied with a small fine. The debate in court will certainly be interesting and I shall inform you of it in my next letter.[10]

Of one thing there can be no doubt: the Irish, thanks to their energetic efforts, have saved the right of the people of London to hold meetings in parks when and how they please.

IV. Meeting in Hyde Park. Situation in Spain[edit source]

First published in La Plebe, No. 122, December 14, 1872

Translated from the Italian

Published in English for the first time in MECW

London, December 11, 1872

The trial by the British government of speakers at the Irish MEETING in Hyde Park has brought a storm on its head. It is true that the justice of the peace made the accused pay a fine of five pounds. But the trial has completely proved the illegality in several respects of the new regulation on public parks, such that the Court of Appeal, which is now handling the case, will have to absolve the accused.

And this is not all: after this first MEETING, not a Sunday goes by without public assemblies in Hyde Park; and the government dare not disturb a single orator. On one occasion there was a meeting there in support of policemen, who had come out on strike; on another a MEETING was held simply to reaffirm the right of assembly in parks.

A strike by policemen? I hear you say. Yes indeed; England is a devil of a country in which strikes penetrate everywhere. I remember that fifteen years ago the POLICEMEN of Manchester went on strike for a wage increase and were completely successful after just two days. A few weeks ago the policemen of the capital threatened to strike because a wage increase of about 20 per cent had been refused them. At the last moment the government deemed it expedient to comply with all their demands. By way of reprisal, however, it punished the secretary of the resistance society which the policemen had formed; and as he did not agree to submit to the punishment inflicted on him he was removed from office. A re-action then broke out in the ranks of the police and the Hyde Park meeting was announced. The government gave way once again, granting the rebels an amnesty before the meeting took place—with the exception of the aforementioned secretary. This goes to show that in England—beneath its utterly aristocratic appearance—the spirit of the bourgeoisie has penetrated everywhere. What other nation is so bourgeois as to be able to permit itself resistance societies and strikes among policemen?

The news that has reached us of the attitude of the various federations of the International to the resolutions of the Hague Congress is most satisfying. In Holland (where that country’s delegates had voted with the minority) a regional congress deliberated in conformity with the spirit of the great Association[11]. It was agreed that the Rules and Regulations of the General Council in New York should be followed, while reserving the right to make observations which are considered necessary at the Universal Congress, to be held in September 1873, and not to recognise the right of any other Congress to make decrees on the general interests of the Association.

In Spain too, where the leaders of the Hague minority thought they held absolute sway, the good sense of the workers is making headway. The partisans of the Alliance, who are at the head of the Federal Council, have called a regional Congress for December 25 in Cordova. This Congress, following the agenda voted at the previous one in Saragossa[12], should deal with the matter of bringing the Spanish federal organisation into line with the resolutions to be adopted by the international general Congress.[13] And yet the Federal Council has put on the agenda a choice between the resolutions of the international Congress at The Hague and the anti-international Congress at Saint-Imier.[14] This constitutes a flagrant violation of the General Rules. The New Federation of Madrid has consequently launched an appeal to all the truly international federations (namely those which recognise the General Rules and resolutions of Congresses) to elect a new provisional Federal Council[15]. Important federations and sections, such as those of Lérida, Badalona, Denia and Pont de Vilumara, have already responded with their support. In addition, the federations of Gracia, Toledo, Alcalâ and a large number of those in Cadiz and Valencia have declared themselves against the present Federal Council. In Gracia, a manufacturing suburb of Barcelona, after three nights of discussions sustained by the Alliancists of Barcelona, the local federation—500 members strong—unanimously deliberated all the Hague resolutions and agreed to rebuke the Spanish delegates for their conduct at the last General Congress. In Valencia the Federal Council itself, seeing that it was in danger of being beaten in plenary session, blocked a vote which might have gone against it—a step which provoked splits.[16] And this is just the beginning of the movement in Spain. In a few weeks it will be strong enough to prove that the Spanish workers are not going to let the International be thrown into disarray for the profit of the leaders of a handful of secret societies.

The Hague Congress dealt with a certain Bousquet, secretary of the police commissariat at Béziers, who had infiltrated the ranks of the International, but who had in fact already been expelled at his section’s request by the last General Council[17]. This gentleman, who was subsequently promoted by M. Thiers to the rank of chief of the police brigade in his town, found a defender in issue No. 21 of the Bulletin jurassien[18]. Hardly surprising, given that from the ranks of the Jura Federation have emerged two gentlemen — Albert Richard and Gaspard Blanc — who are currently collaborating with M. Louis Napoleon.

F. Engels

  1. In 1830-31, extremely hard conditions caused spontaneous rebellions of agricultural workers in the south and east of England. The new agricultural machines led to mass unemployment among the farm-hands who, in protest, burned hay ricks and damaged machines. The rebels were severely dealt with by the army.
  2. In late March 1872, the agricultural workers of Warwickshire formed a union which headed a strike that soon spread to the neighbouring counties. The strike was supported by the trade unions of industrial workers. Their financial aid and the need for extra workers promoted the struggle of the agricultural workers. A national union of agricultural workers headed by Joseph Arch was founded in May 1872 and by the end of 1873, it numbered about 100,000 members. The struggle for a shorter working day and higher wages went on till 1874 and was victorious in a number of counties.
  3. Georges Darboy.— Ed
  4. This refers to the reply of Bruce, Home Secretary, at the sitting of the House of Lords on April 12, 1872 in connection with A. B. Cochrane’s speech against the International Working Men’s Association (The Times, No. 27350, April 13, 1872).— Ed.
  5. See Declaration of the General Council of the International Working Men's Association Concerning Cochrane's Speech in the House of Commons.— Ed
  6. Carlo Cafiero.— Ed
  7. Liste nominale des délégués composant le 5ème Congrès universel, tenu à la Haye (Hollande), du 2 au 7 Septembre 1872, Amsterdam [1872].— Ed
  8. September 7.— Ed.
  9. By the “last” General Council Engels means the London Council that existed before the Hague Congress of the International at which a decision was adopted to transfer the scat of the General Council to New York.
  10. In the fourth article of the Letters from London series: “Meeting in Hyde Park. — The Position in Spain,” written on December 11, 1872, Engels reported that the Justice of the Peace could do no more than impose the smallest possible fine, and since his decision anyway ran contrary to the rules governing behaviour in Hyde Park the accused demanded that the case be brought before a court of appeal.
  11. Engels is referring to the congress of representatives of several Dutch sections of the International convened in Amsterdam on November 24, 1872, by the Dutch Federal Council in connection with the anarchists’ opposition to the decisions of the Hague Congress. The congress resolved to support the General Council.
  12. The congress of the Spanish Federation of the International was held at Saragossa from April 4 to 11, 1872. It was attended by 45 delegates representing 31 local federations. The police, on government instructions, wrecked its public sittings.
    A sharp struggle developed at the congress between the followers of the General Council of the International, whose mouthpiece was the newspaper La Emancipacion, and the adherents of the Bakuninist Alliance. The latter managed to have some of their anarchist resolutions adopted and secured seats for the Alliance members in a newly elected Spanish Federal Council which, after having moved from Madrid to Valencia, became wholly Bakuninist. Further sharpening of the contradictions among the Spanish organisations of the Inter”-uional resulted in a break of the Emancipacion group with the Bakuninists.
  13. The congress of Spanish anarchists in Cordova was held between December 25, 1872 and January 2, 1873. The congress turned down the decisions of the Hague Congress and the General Rules of the International Working Men’s Association and supported the resolutions of the international congress of anarchists in Saint-Imier, Switzerland (September 1872).
  14. A congress of representatives of secret organisations of the Bakuninist Alliance from various countries was held in Saint-Imier on September 15-16, 1872, on the initiative of the Jura Federation. The congress decided to reject the resolutions of the Hague Congress and the authority of the General Council. It adopted a special resolution against the political struggle of the working class and the necessity of an independent political party of the proletariat. Its address called upon sections to oppose the General Council and to convene their own “anti-authoritarian” congress in six months’ time. The decisions of the Saint-Imier Congress signified an actual split in the International,
  15. "La Nueva Federacion Madrileria a todas las federaciones, secciones é individuos de la Asociacion Internacional en Espana", La Emancipation, No. 73, November 9, 1872.— Ed
  16. The Gracia Federation meeting took place on November 4-6, 1872. On hearing the report on the Hague Congress delivered by an Alliance leader Charles Alerini it rejected the anarchists’ proposal to support the Saint-Imier Congress decisions and approved the Hague Congress resolutions by a majority vote.
    The Valencia Federation meeting was held on November 9, 1872. It rejected the Alliance members’ proposal to include the demand to support the decisions of the Saint-Imier Congress in the imperative mandate of the delegate to the Cordova Congress.
  17. See Resolutions of the Hague Congress of the International Working Men's Association (1872) - VII. Resolutions Relating to the Alliance.— Ed.
  18. J. Montels, "Compagnons rédacteurs...", Bulletin de la Federation jurassienne..., No. 20/21, November 10, 1872.— Ed.