The Poland Meeting (August 1855)

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Author(s) Karl Marx
Written 13 August 1855


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First published in the Neue Oder-Zeitung, No. 379, August 16, 1855
Marked with the sign x
Published in English for the first time in MECW.
Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 14 (pp.477-480), Progress Publishers, Moscow 1980
Collection(s): Neue Oder-Zeitung

Some details in Marx's account of the meeting, in particular his description of the speakers, show that his article was based either on his own impressions or those of eyewitnesses. It is possible therefore that he attended the meeting. He may also have used the report on the meeting published in The People's Paper, No. 171, August 11, 1855, which gave the text of the amendment tabled by the Urquhartist Collet and adopted by the meeting (Marx quotes it). Marx also had at his disposal copies of leaflets distributed in the hall, from which he quotes, though their contents were not included in newspaper reports.

London, August 13. The repeated angry sallies of the Government newspapers against the great Poland meeting which took place last Wednesday in St. Martin's Hall[1] necessitate some marginal notes. The initiative for the meeting evidently originated with the Government itself. The "Literary Association of the Friends of Poland"[2], an association composed of Czartoryski's supporters on the one hand and English aristocrats with a friendly disposition towards Poland on the other, was pushed forward as a front. From its inception this association has been a blind tool in the hands of Palmerston, who manipulated and controlled it through the mediation of the recently deceased Lord Dudley Stuart. The addresses concerning Poland and deputations which it sent to Palmerston each year were one of the most significant aids he had in keeping his "anti-Russian" reputation alive. For their part Czartoryski's supporters gained important advantages from this connection: they figured as the only respectable, so to say "official" representatives of the Polish emigration, they could keep down the democratic party among the emigrants and they had the association's significant' material means of relief at their disposal as recruiting funds for their own party. The controversy between the Literary Association and the "Centralisation"[3] of the Democratic Polish Association has been fierce and long-lived. In 1839 the latter held a great -public meeting in London, exposing the intrigues of the "Literary" Association, unfurling the past history of the Czartoryskis (this was done by Ostrowski, the author of a history of Poland written in English[4]) and openly declaring its opposition to the diplomatic-aristocratic "restorers" of Poland. From this moment the position which the "Literary" Association had usurped was undermined. In passing, it should be noted that the events of 1846 and of 1848-49[5] added a third element to the Polish emigration, a socialist group, but this, together with the democrats, opposes the Czartoryski party.

The purpose of the meeting held at the instigation of the Government was threefold: to form a Polish legion and thus get rid of part of the "Polish foreigners" by sending them to the Crimea; to refurbish Palmerston's popularity; and finally to deliver any potential Polish movement into his own hands and those of Bonaparte. The government press claims that a deeply laid conspiracy inspired by Russian agents thwarted the purpose of the meeting. Nothing could be more ridiculous than this assertion. The majority of the audience in St. Martin's Hall was made up of London Chartists. The anti-Government amendment[*] was moved by an Urquhartist and seconded by an Urquhartist—Collet and Hart. Leaflets distributed in the hall said that

"the meeting had been called by English aristocrats simply trying to maintain the old British system of government, etc.". "Poland, which condemned every alliance with the present rulers of Europe, did not wish to be restored by any of the existing governments, nor sink to being a tool of diplomatic intrigue, etc."

These leaflets were signed by the president and the secretary of the "Polish Democratic Committee". Now considering that in London all three factions, Chartists, Urquhartists and the really "democratic" Polish emigration are on anything but friendly terms with one another, every suspicion of a "conspiracy" vanishes. The noisy interruptions of the meeting were provoked exclusively by the unparliamentary refusal by the chairman, Lord Harrington, to read out Collet's amendment and put it to the vote. They were aggravated by the secretary of the "Literary Association of the Friends of Poland" Colonel Szulszewski's notion of shouting for a constable to have Collet arrested. The tumult naturally reached its climax when Lord Harrington, Sir Robert Peel and their friends fled the platform and quit the premises. With the appointment of George Thompson as president in place of Harrington tranquillity was instantly restored.

The specimens of England's ruling class prominent at this Poland meeting were by no means calculated to instil any special respect for the patriciate. The Earl of Harrington may perhaps be a very good man, but he is indubitably a very bad speaker. It would be impossible to witness a more embarrassing performance. Only by means of supreme exertion could his lordship stammer forth two connected words. To this moment he failed to conclude a single sentence of his speech. In the meantime this was done for him—by the stenographers. His lordship is a military man and undoubtedly brave, but judging from the way he conducted the Poland meeting, he is better fitted for any other vocation than for that of being a leader. As a speaker Lord Ebrington, the midwife of the Sunday Bill, is only a little better than the Earl of Harrington. His physiognomy betrays obstinacy, his skull has the form of a battering ram. He has one undeniable merit. Arguments cannot defeat him. Napoleon once declared that Englishmen did not know when they were beaten. In this respect Ebrington is a model Englishman.

After the lords came the baronets. Lord Ebrington proposed the government motion on the restoration of Poland; Sir Robert Peel followed him and spoke as his seconder. In many respects no greater contrast can be imagined than exists between the "Member for Tamworth" (Peel) and the "Member for Marylebone" (Ebrington). The former is a roguish natural humbug, the latter an affected and puritanical chicken heart. The one amuses, the other disgusts. Sir Robert Peel gives the impression of a traveller in wines who has been raised to the nobility, Lord Ebrington of an inquisitor converted to Protestantism. Tony Lumpkin and Beau Brummell roiled into one would, more or less, produce the incongruity exhibiting itself in Peel's person, dress and manner. An extraordinary mixture of clown and dandy. Palmerston is extremely partial to this oddity from Tamworth. He finds it serviceable. Whenever he wants to know which way the popular wind is blowing, he hoists aloft Sir Robert Peel to act as his weather-vane. When he desired to know if public opinion in England would sanction the expulsion of Victor Hugo, etc., he let Sir Robert Peel deliver a denunciation of the refugees and an apology for Bonaparte[6]. So once again in relation to Poland. He exploits him as a "feeler". Peel is extraordinarily fitted for this not particularly dignified role. He is what the English call "a chartered libertine"[7], a dashing madcap, a privileged eccentric, for whose impulses and outbursts, erratic manoeuvrings, words and deeds no Government is held responsible, nor any party. Sir Robert came to the Poland meeting padded out and, it is said, made up in the artistic fashion. He appeared to be girdled, wore a crimson rose in his buttonhole, was as perfumed as a milliner and in his right hand he flourished a huge umbrella with which he beat time as he spoke. By a highly ironic coincidence the ex-vicepresident of the Association for Administrative Reform[8], Mr. Tite, followed hard on the heels of the lords and the baronets. Since the influence of this association gained him the designation of the Solon of Bath he has begun his parliamentary career, as is well known, by voting against Scully's motion for a piece of administrative reform and for Palmerston's Turkish loan, while abstaining, with great moderation, from voting on Roebuck's motion[9]. The lords and the baronets seemed to be pointing at him and snickering: There you have our substitute! It is unnecessary to describe Mr. Tite in detail. Shakespeare did so when he invented the immortal Shallow, compared by Falstaff to one of the little men made out of cheese-parings after supper.[10]

In contrast to all these gentlemen the very first words of an unknown young plebeian named Hart gave the impression that he was a man able to inspire and to govern great masses. Now we can understand the Government's vexation at the Poland meeting. It was not only a defeat for Palmerston, but even more so for the class he represents.

[*] The following is the wording of Collet's amendment, which was adopted by the meeting:

"That this meeting, cordially desiring the restoration of Polish nationality, cannot forget that the destruction of that nationality was mainly owing to the perfidious conduct of Lord Palmerston from 1830 to 1846; that so long as Lord Palmerston is a servant of the Crown, no proposal for the restoration of Poland can be anything but a sham and a delusion, and that the truth of this proposition is shown by the fact that Lord Palmerston has carried on the war in such a way as to avoid, as far as possible, injuring Russia, while he has proposed terms of peace which utterly destroy the integrity and independence of Turkey."

—Marx.

  1. The meeting was held on August 8, 1855. Reports on it were published in The Times, No. 22128, August 9, 1855, and in The People's Paper, No 70, August 11, 1855.—Ed.
  2. The Literary Association of the Friends of Poland was set up in London in 1832 and was modelled on the Literary Society established in Paris by the conservative, aristocratic-monarchist wing of the Polish refugee community (Adam Czartoryski's followers) in the same year.
  3. The Democratic Polish Association was formed by radical nationalist or democratic Polish refugees—noblemen and bourgeois—in France in 1832. In 1836 the Centralisation, the Association's executive committee, was established. The Association worked for a popular revolution involving the peasant masses. It aimed at national independence, the abolition of feudal services and inequality stemming from the existence of social estates, the transfer of plots to the peasants without redemption, and a number of other progressive measures. The Democratic Association took an active part in preparing the 1846 Cracow uprising and in the 1848-49 revolution. In the summer of 1849, after the Association was banned in France, the Centralisation's headquarters were transferred to London. The 1850s were marked by dissent within the Association. After the establishment in Poland of the Central National Committee for the Preparation of a National Liberation Uprising, the Association dissolved (1862).
  4. J. B. Ostrowski, The History of Poland, Vols. I-II.—Ed.
  5. In 1846 a national liberation uprising took place in the Cracow republic, which by decision of the Congress of Vienna was controlled jointly by Austria, Prussia and Russia, who had partitioned Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. The seizure of power in Cracow by the insurgents on February 22, 1846 and the establishment of a National Government of the Polish republic, which issued a manifesto abolishing feudal services, were part of the plan for a general uprising in the Polish lands, which was inspired mainly by the revolutionary democrats. In March the Cracow uprising, lacking active support in other parts of Poland, was crushed by the forces of Austria and Tsarist Russia. In November 1846, Austria, Prussia and Russia signed a treaty incorporating the "free town of Cracow" into the Austrian Empire.

    In 1848 a revolutionary movement again spread in many regions of Poland, in particular, Posen and Silesia, and also among the Ukrainian peasants in Galicia. In 1848-49 Polish revolutionaries were active in the revolutionary struggle in Germany, Austria, Hungary, France and Italy.
  6. Addressing the House of Commons on December 12, 1854, Peel urged the British Government to take repressive measures against the political refugees and put an end to public criticism by refugees, above all Victor Hugo and Lajos Kossuth, of the governments of their countries.
  7. Shakespeare, Henry V, Act I, Scene 1, quoted by Marx in English.—Ed.
  8. The Association for Administrative Reform was set up in London in May 1855 on the initiative of liberal circles in the City. Taking advantage of the outcry caused in the country by press reports and the findings of the Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry on the plight of the British army in the Crimea, the Association hoped by means of mass rallies to bring pressure to bear on Parliament and win broader access for members of the commercial and finance bourgeoisie to government posts, monopolised by the aristocracy. In their campaign the Association's leaders sought to obtain the support of the Chartists. However, at rallies organised by the Association and at their own rallies the Chartists refused to back the moderate bourgeois demands for administrative reform and instead urged a Parliamentary reform based on the People's Charter (*). The administrative reform campaign was a failure, and the Association soon ceased to exist. In his subsequent reports Marx frequently touched on the Association's activities and relations with the Chartists.

    (*) 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.
  9. Scully submitted his motion to the Commons on July 10, 1855; Palmerston's motion on the Turkish loan was submitted on July 20; for Roebuck's motion, submitted on July 17, see this volume, pp. 337-38, 355-57 and 363.—Ed.
  10. Shakespeare, Henry IV, Second Part, Act III, Scene 2.—Ed.