Vol. XLII No. 47 November 25, 2018

Economic Crisis New Movements

WHILE immersed in theoretical studies, Marx did not for a moment lose touch with current political affairs. As an active publicist, he closely followed economic development and the policy of the ruling classes in European countries and the United States, and took note of even the smallest success of the democratic and proletarian movement there.



In the 1850s, the Left wing of the Chartist movement took energetic steps to organize propaganda work among the working class. The ideological positions held at that time by some leading and rank and file Chartists showed that they were increasingly influenced by Marxist ideas. In 1850 the Chartist journal, The Red Republican, printed the first English text of the Manifesto of the Communist Party, the programme document of Marxism. Its ideas found expression in many articles in the Chartist Press, in particular those calling on people to fight for political power through universal suffrage.

Marx helped the Chartist in leader, Ernest Jones, in starting The People’s Paper, a weekly whose first issue appeared in 1852. Marx wrote 17 articles for the paper. On Jones’ request he often took part in editing the paper, helping to turn it into a revolutionary proletarian periodical.

In 1854, the Chartist leaders convened in Manchester a Congress of representatives of workers’ trade unions and clubs with a view to establishing a Chartist organization to be called the Mass Movement. Marx was unable to go to Manchester, but in his letter to the Congress, stressed the need to unite the forces of the working class on a nationwide scale through the founding of a proletarian party.

In the summer of 1855, London streets became the scenes of large demonstrations of working people protesting against the prohibition of trade on Sunday, the day when the worker’s wives could do family shopping with the week’s wages that were normally paid on Saturdays. Marx and Wihelm Liebknecht were among a huge crowed of demonstrators and narrowly escaped arrest when the latter were attacked by the police.



The strike movement and the mass actions of the British workers that took place at the time demonstrated the vast potentialities of the working class. But would it be able to realise these potentialities? Would it become, within the next few years, not only a “Class in itself” but also a “class for itself”?

Marx’s study of the economic and political conditions in England led him to the conclusion that should the English working class become better organised, more politically aware and more revolutionary  in sprit, prospects  could open out for England’s development along a road of revolutionary transformations. However, in the latter half of the fifties, it became clear that the Chartists movement had abandoned the political arena.

The period saw the rapid growth of the trade unions. They were established by the workers in the building, engineering, textile and other industries who strove to unite their forces in the face of capital’s offensive.

The leadership of the trade unions concentrated exclusively on economic demands. Trade union views began to exert a growing influence on the working class, a process which was furthered by Britain’s becoming the world’s biggest industrial and colonial power, and by the rise and development of a labour elite  which the bourgeolsie fed with hand-outs from its confers, using it as an instrument for influencing the working class.



The late 1850s and early 1860s saw a resurgence of the revolutionary movement in Europe and America following the economic crisis of 1857-58. The crisis broke out first in the United States, then spread to Europe, assuming world-wide proportions for the first time in the history of capitalism. “The American crash is magnificent and far from being over,” Marx wrote to Engels after receiving news of the outbreak of a crisis in the United States. “The bankruptcy of a great number of import firms is expected; evidently, so far only individual ones have collapsed. The impact on England seems to have affected also the Liverpool City Bank.”

The crisis led to sharp cut-backs in production. The whole of the capitalist economy was shaken. Hundreds of firms went bankrupt. The Bank of England issued large amounts of paper money not backed by any gold reserves.

The working class was hardest hit. In England, about 60 per cent of industrial workers became fully or partly unemployed. The crisis had an immediate impact also on Marx’s finances: his earnings from the New York Daily Tribune were reduced by half. Most of his family’s belongings were once again sent to the pawn-shop.

In his articles on the economic crisis, Marx pointed out the futility of the bourgeois economists’ attempts to find ways to overcome it. He said that as long as the capitalist system existed there would be economic crises.



The world economic crisis accelerated changes in the political sphere in Europe and the United States. By the end of the 1850s a revolutionary situation had developed in Russia; in the 1861-65 period, a civil war on the issue of Black slavery raged in the United States; there was a powerful revolutionary upsurge in Italy, and in 1863-64, an uprising took place in Poland against the Austrian rule. Marx closely followed the growth of the political activity of the working class. He studied the development of democratic and proletarian movements, wrote many articles about them, and did his best to strengthen links between the revolutionaries of different countries.

He was the first to show that the civil war in the United States was first and foremost a struggle between two social systems. In the abolition of Black slavery in the United States, Marx and Engels saw a turning point in the development of that country which would have an impact on world history.

In studying the situation in Russia, Marx paid close attention to the development of peasant movements and the ripening of a revolutionary situation there in the late fifties. He showed the need for rapid industrial development in Russia, which economically lagged far behind the Western countries. In the imminent changes, in the unavoidable collapse of the serf-holding system, Marx saw a manifestation of the objective laws of “development of economic relations over which even the tsar has no power.”



In the beginning of 1863, the front of democratic and liberation movements widened with the outbreak of a national liberation uprising in the Polish lands belonging to Russia. Marx, writing to Engels, noted some favourable changes for the uprising in Poland, which had started amidst a revolutionary upsurge in Europe. “Let us hope that this time the lava flows from East to West.” He wrote.

In Marx’s opinion, the success of the uprising depended on both internal and international factors, i.e., on whether the broad peasant masses would be involved in it, and whether there would be any prospect of a revolution in Russia. Soon, however, the Party of big landlords and the upper crust of the bourgeoisie, which feared the peasant masses and hoped for assistance from England and France, took over the leadership of the insurrection. As Marx predicted, neither the Government of Napoleon III in France nor that of Palmerston in England came to the rebels’ aid at the critical moment, limiting themselves to diplomatic manoeuvres.

Marx did his utmost to help the Polish insurgents. He exposed in the Press the tsarist and Prussian Government’s collusion to crush the Polish uprising and the reluctance of the British and French Governments to give real assistance to the Poles. The entire course of the uprising and its brutal suppression by tsarist troops bore out Marx’s conclusion that the success of the liberation struggle of the Polish people did not  depend on their alliance with the Governments of Western countries, but on alliance with the revolutionary movement in Russia and with the international working class, as well as on their ability to wage liberation struggles by revolutionary methods and combine it with revolutionary changes in the interests of the peasants.

In memory of the Polish insurrection, Marx’s eldest daughter Jenny wore an insurgent cross. Later she put it on a green ribbon—green being the traditional Irish colour and symbolising support for the Irish liberation movement.



In early 1859, Italy was on the threshould major revolutionary events: the country was divided, which hindered its development; the people were indignant over the occupation of the north of the country by Austria. Marx believed that the Italians themselves were able to decide their country’s destiny and that their burning hatred of their oppressors would vent itself in a nationwide revolution. In his opinion, the middle and petty bourgeoisie, the peasants, intelligentsia and the nascent working class should rally round the democrats in order to carry out the tasks facing the country. He urgently warned the Italian democrats that Napoleon III’s meddling in Italian affairs was guided by self-seeking aims.

Marx enthusiastically hailed the news of the liberation of Southern Italy from Neapolitan Bourbons by Garibaldi’s contingent, and spoke highly of Garibaldi’s revolutionary methods of warfare and his ability as a people’s general. But Garibaldi the politician turned out to be, contrary to the hopes of Marx and Engels, of a much lower stature than Garibaldi the revolutionary general. After completing the liberation of the whole of southern Italy, Garibaldi abandoned his planned march on Rome and relinquished his powers, thereby displaying the political short-sightedness and inconsistency to so typical of him. His great concern was the unity of the whole of Italy, but he did not attach sufficient importance to the question of the form of unity, so that while being a republican and a democrat, he did not object to the country’s unification under a constitutional monarchy.