Frederick Engels in La Réforme

The Commercial Crises in England. — The Chartist Movement. — Ireland [128]

Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 307;
Written: on October 23, 1847;
First published: in La Réforme, October 26, 1847.

The commercial crisis to which England finds itself exposed at the moment is, indeed, more severe than any of the preceding crises. Neither in 1837 nor in 1842 was the depression as universal as at the present time. All the branches of England’s vast industry have been paralysed at the peak of its development; everywhere there is stagnation, everywhere one sees nothing but workers thrown out on the streets. It goes without saying that such a state of affairs gives rise to extreme unrest among the workers who, exploited by the industrialists during the period of commercial prosperity, now find themselves dismissed en masse and abandoned to their fate. Consequently meetings of discontented workers are rapidly increasing. The Northern Star, the organ of the Chartist workers, uses more than seven of its large columns to report on meetings held in the past week [reports on the Chartist meetings in The Northern Star October 16, 1847]; the list of meetings announced for the present week fills another three columns. The same newspaper mentions a brochure published by a worker, Mr. John Noakes [John Noakes, The Right of the Aristocracy to the Soil, considered. The report on its publication appeared in The Northern Star October 23, 1847], In which the author makes an open and direct attack on the right of the aristocracy to own its lands.

“English soil,” he says, “is the property of the people, from whom our aristocrats seized it either by force or by trickery. The people must see that their inalienable right to property prevails; the proceeds of the land should be public property and used in the interest of the public. Perhaps I shall be told that these are revolutionary remarks. Revolutionary or not, it is of no concern; if the people cannot obtain that which they need in a law, they must get it without law.”

It will not seem surprising that in these circumstances the Chartists should have recourse to most unusual measures; their leader, the famous Feargus O'Connor, has just announced that he is shortly to leave for Scotland, where he will call meetings in all the towns and collect signatures for the national petition for the People’s Charter, which will be sent to the next Parliament. At the same time, he, announced that before the opening of Parliament, the Chartist press is to be increased by the addition of a daily newspaper, the Democrat. [129]

It will be recalled that at the last elections Mr. Harney, editor-in-chief of The Northern Star, was put forward as the Chartist candidate for Tiverton, a borough which is represented in Parliament by Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary. Mr. Harney, who won on the show of hands, decided to retire when Lord Palmerston demanded a poll.[130] Now something has happened which shows how the feelings of the inhabitants of Tiverton differ from those of the small number of parliamentary electors. There was a vacancy to fill on the borough council; the municipal electors, a far more numerous class than that of the parliamentary electors, gave the vacant seat to Mr. Rowcliffe, the person who had proposed Mr. Harney at the elections. Moreover, the Chartists are preparing all over England for the municipal elections which will take place throughout the country at the beginning of November.

But let us turn now to England’s greatest manufacturing district, Lancashire, a part of the country which has suffered under the burden of industrial stagnation more than any other. The situation in Lancashire is alarming in the highest degree. Most of the factories have already stopped work entirely, and those which are still operating employ their workers for only two or at the most three days a week. But this is still not all: the industrialists of Ashton, a very important town for the cotton industry, have announced to their workers that in a week’s time they are going to reduce wages by 10 per cent. This news, which is causing alarm among the workers, is spreading across the country. A few days later a meeting of workers’ delegates from all over the county was held in Manchester; this meeting resolved to send a deputation to the owners to induce them not to carry out the threatened reduction and, if this deputation achieved no results, to announce a strike of all workers employed in the Lancashire cotton industry. This strike, together with the strike of the Birmingham iron-workers and miners which has already started, would not fail to assume the same alarming dimensions which signalled the last general strike, that of 1842.[131] It could quite well become even more menacing for the government.

In the meantime starving Ireland is writhing in the most terrible convulsions. The workhouses are overflowing with beggars, the ruined property owners are refusing to pay the Poor Tax, and the hungry people gather in their thousands to ransack the barns and cattle-sheds of the farmers and even of the Catholic priests, who were still sacred to them a short time ago.

It looks as though the Irish will not die of hunger as calmly next winter as they did last winter. Irish immigration to England is getting more alarming each day. It is estimated that an average of 50,000 Irish arrive each year; the number so far this year is already over 220,000. In September, 345 were arriving daily and in October this figure increased to 511. This means that the competition between the workers will become stronger, and it would not be at all surprising if the present crisis caused such an uproar that it compelled the government to grant reforms of a most important nature.