Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were correct in writing that "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles"(57). However, they also believed that the only successful future was a violent revolution of the working class. Marxist thought posits the belief that only through the remodeling of society can the working class regain any of the humanistic characteristics which had been lost through their subjugation to the world’s industry. Marx and Engels gave no account to the trend in English literature of the 1800’s which for the first time in history gave dynamic character to the proletariat. Authors such as Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell used their craft to assert the importance of the new working class, its plight, and its emotions and to sometime praise, sometime vilify the new relations it held with the bourgeoisie thus, whether intentionally or not, Mrs. Gaskell appropriated Marxist material without Marxist discourse.
In essence, English society underwent a Marxist revolution lasting throughout the Victorian age and on into the Modern Age; a revolution in the spirit of The Communist Manifesto, yet within the confines of a strict capitalist society. This English democracy was brought together by a long sustained revolution paid for by the blood of workers, the hunger pangs of their children, and the humiliation of the industrial masters and it would forever alter and yet still continues to change the face of modern western society.
The Communist Manifesto, while today associated with Eastern European thought, was written after Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were commissioned by a congress of the Communist League to draw up a party program. The resulting manifesto, printed in London in 1848, was written amidst the cries of a dying class (Randall 22). Engels, whose father owned cotton mills in England, was sent there as a young man to learn the textile business. It was during this time that he gained first-hand knowledge of the abhorrent existence the English industrial workers led (Randall 18). Both men had come of age under the rule of despotic state and it was as young idealists that they became friends, sharing in theoretical as well as practical views of the history and future of society. From this background, a text was born that would assert predictions of violent revolutions within the class structure.
Marxist thought argues that the industrial age ushered in a new age of slavery. Whereas the workingmen of the Middle Ages owned their tools and benefited directly from the fruits of their labor, the new working class was a slave to the wages imposed upon them by their industrial masters. They lost control of their capital as they were forced to work with foreign machinery they held no claim to, and they lost their freedom as they were made to compete for jobs by selling themselves off to greater hours of work and reduced wages. A new class, the bourgeoisie, created itself as masters of industry, subjugating the working class (or proletariat) while opposing the old aristocracy for power. Marx and Engels argued that as this occurred and the proletariat class grew in numbers, they would collectivize, realize that they owned nothing and violently overthrow the bourgeoisie in order to gain their freedom. As a result, private property, which is considered in terms relative to bourgeois power, will be abolished. The Manifesto advocated this belief in the thought that a society which had sunk to the absolute depths of social inequity would correct itself by taking away the source of the inequity and oppressive power. The ultimate goal would be for each member of society to have some investment in society by asserting the Marxist maxim: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" (Critque 10).
Marxist theories collected and articulated the strong foundation of thought upon which the working class would organize. The Communist Manifesto effectively formulated these theories into a platform that could serve as a warning for the English masters of industry. This essay on social thought did not represent the beginnings of the working class’ political movement. The Manifesto in some form presented itself as a scale by which to gauge the progress of the labor movement. The English working class by 1848 had a general idea of what they wanted to gain and Marx and Engels’ underlying goal of achieving a proletarian investment in society was one main concept. The workers wanted to secure a greater percentage of the profit their labor produced. The major divergence of thought between the two camps (meaning that of Marxist-Communists and that of the English organized worker), however, can be seen as one of semantics. While the Marxist believed that the only way to put into effect his maxim was by dismantling society, the common English unionist fought for investment in the pre-existing capitalist society.
In 1838, a radical working class movement called Chartism peaked in popularity when a ‘People’s Charter’ of six points was incorporated into the national petition submitted to Parliament by the group. In the preambulatory section of the petition the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 is mentioned as a bitter disappointment that simply transferred "power from one domineering faction to another; and left the people as helpless as before" (Petition). The act was meant to allow more Englishmen the vote, yet after it was passed only seven percent of the English adult population attained suffrage. Marx would write sixteen years later that "each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class" (Manifesto 60). As the English proletariat was beginning to awaken to new political ideas brought about by the class’ social ills, it would become apparent in the new pro-working class literature. Not only Marx would use what the English unionists had recognized, for it also began to appear in the Victorian novel.
In his introduction to Elizabeth Gaskell’s first novel, Mary Barton, Macdonald Daly quotes a conversation Mrs. Gaskell held with Edward Holland where she commented:
My poor Mary Barton is stirring up all sorts of angry feelings against me in Manchester, but those best aquainted with the way of thinking and feeling among the poor acknowledge its truth; which is the acknowledgment I most of all desire, because evils once recognized are half way on towards their remedy. (xiv) Mary Barton marked the beginning of a brilliant writing career for Elizabeth Gaskell and serves as an excellent example of the changing face of English literature during the Victorian era. Whereas the novel had previously been an art form reserved for and targeting the upper classes, novels such as those written by Mrs. Gaskell exemplified the underlying power of the proletariat. The romanticism of an earlier generation of novelists quickly faded into the realism that the Industrial Revolution had forced upon the laboring class. Worship of nature was traded in for an attempt at accurately portraying the jungle of the new English industrial centers. This is symbolized in Gaskell’s North and South as the heroine leaves the beauty of the country-side behind for the problems of the city and the enlightenment of the laboring class. As Gaskell was putting the finishing touches on Mary Barton, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels would just begin writing of their "specter... haunting Europe" (55) using their knowledge of modern society to underscore their positions. One way to approach this new fiction, then, is to see it as no less than the truth. Consider Mrs. Gaskell’s novels as fictionalized depiction’s of actual events where ‘names and places have been changed to protect the innocent’, and one will gain insight into English history and the conditions of which Marx wrote.
The English psyche is imbued with the idea of nature. Whereas England had a largely agrarian-based culture before the industrial revolution, much of this identity was stripped from an entire class of people after it. The proletariat would lose the freedom of nature only to find bondage by machines. However, in the agrarian society of preceding centuries, each laborer was, in effect, still bound to the land. Each farmer was assigned to his separate sphere and interpersonal contact was limited. With industrialization and the change to the factory setting, men worked side by side for hours on end and the effects of an action against one laborer was felt with comparable harshness by the rest. This then leads to the organization of labor into unions.
Mrs. Gaskell wrote extensively of the unions in both North and South and Mary Barton, recognizing their positive traits as well as their bad. Nicolas Higgins, from North and South, says of the unions that:
A man leads a dree life who’s not in th’ Union. But once in th’ Union, his interests are taken care on better nor he could do it for himsel’, or by himsel’, for that matter. Its the only way working men can get rights, by all joining together. More the members, more chance for each one separate man having justice done him. I’m a member o’ the Union; and I think it’s the only thing to do the workman any good. (286) And yet Mrs. Gaskell uses the pitiful character of Boucher, a striking worker unable to feed his family, to expose readers to another aspect of the union. Boucher calls the unions "a worser tyrant than e’er th’ masters were" that would have a man and his family die of starvation "ere yo’ dare go again th’ Union" (154). Within this exchange Gaskell explores the strong feelings of class loyalty developing throughout the proletariat when, as an answer to Boucher’s accusations, Higgins responds by referring to the powers a union holds as being comparable to a government.(286) Higgins makes slight reference to the Social Contract which says that government has been entered into, a community has been formed, so as to protect people from the chaos and danger of the state of nature. By comparing the state of nature to the state of capitalism and the industrial environment, Higgins then shows that the union has the responsibility of protecting the worker and forcing the obedience of those whose errant actions could harm their fellow laborer. This theoretical assertion exemplifies a strong class consciousness and allegiance that the proletariat felt to their class above their government.
The union was the only source of power that the industrial classes held. For this reason it was constantly under attack by the masters. After the strike fails in North and South the Milton masters force the workers, as a condition of employment, to take an oath whereby they agree neither to pay dues to the union or give aid to those striking workers that are on the brink of starvation (285). In Mrs. Gaskell’s novels spoken of here, union organizers and agitators are shunned by the employers and find it extremely difficult to secure work. To combat the strength of the master, the unions use social pressure to obtain allegiance. If there were a worker or small group of workers that refused to join the union then the union would, in effect, excommunicate them from their fellow workers. By imposing a sense of isolation on these stubborn workers, they were able to instill a psychological obedience throughout the ranks.
Mrs. Gaskell’s most memorable descriptions are of the living conditions of the working class. Marx and Engels explain in The Communist Manifesto that as industry replaced the skilled laborer, the proletariat grew in numbers while the lower middle classes fell in social station. The quality of life was reduced substantially as more workers and their families were forced to share a limited number of resources. Gaskell uses Mary Barton to give a vivid account (rivaled in modern literature only by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) of the squalor of the life the Manchester poor live. John Barton, father of the novel’s namesake, is bound for the home of a sick fellow unionist to give him aid when this description is given:
[The road] was unpaved... [and] as they passed, women from their doors tossed households slops of ever description into the gutter; they ran into the next pool, which overflowed and stagnated... You went down one step from the foul area into the cellar in which a family of human beings lived. It was dark inside. The window panes, many of them, were broken and stuffed with rags, which was reason enough for the dusky light that pervaded the place even at mid-day. After the account I have given of the state of the street, no one can be surprised that on going down into the cellar... the smell was so foetid as to almost knock the two men down. (60)
John Barton felt deeply troubled by the conditions he found himself and fellow workingmen in. Barton, like Higgins, represents Mrs. Gaskell’s attempts at portraying the heart of the labor movement. She places John Barton amidst the excitement of the national labor movement and thus shows the reality of the times.
The earlier mentioned Chartism movement is a key point in Mary Barton Gaskell uses to give the labor movement a voice. The narrator writes that the workers "could not believe that Government knew of their misery" and they still believed "some remedy would be found" if Parliament were to recognize the laboring class (85). As a result, the national petition was framed and "signed by thousands in the bright spring days of 1839" asking Parliament to listen to witnesses that would attest to the destitution of the manufacturing districts (86). Industrial cities throughout England sent delegates to London to present the petition in Parliament. In Gaskell’s novel John Barton was one of these men.
The petition, however, was viewed as a complete political failure. Barton returned to Manchester and with a whisper implored Mary to "speak to... God to hear" the workers "for man will not hearken" to the cries even as the proletariat "weeps tears o’ blood." Parliament refused to let the delegates speak and sent the men home defeated. Just as occurred with Barton, it caused a national awakening among the working class and, therefore, may be seen as social success. Whereas they had once believed the government ignorant to their conditions, the proletariat now took to attacking the state and demanding with more vehemence their political rights.
A worker’s revolution was to come of this action. The petition was a demand for rights and equal political opportunity in society. The belief was already widely held that the quickest way of attaining economic investment would be to first secure political rights. Parliament’s denial of this merely forced the workers into demanding those reforms asked for in the petition.
The number of strikes increased and the violence of these strikes worsened with it. The murder of industrial master Harry Carson by John Barton as a warning to the employers had its origins in the real-life murder of Thomas Ashton by striking workers in Manchester in 1831 (Daly xiv). Just before launching into a demand for rights in the petition, it briefly threatens impending violence if the conditions they live under continue, for "the stability of the throne and peace of the kingdom" will be endangered (Petition). As a direct result of the constant rebellion of the industrial classes through strikes, their intent on gaining a fair amount of economic and political power, and the "specter" of communism threatening the capitalist establishment, Parliament began to invest power in the working class.
Three key demands were made in the petition that, while ignored at the time, the English Parliament was later forced to accept. The demand for universal suffrage was the first of these demands and became a reality with the passage of the Reform Bill of 1867 which gave the industrial worker the right to vote (although women would not be extended suffrage until World War I), more than doubling the number of voters. The enactment of the Reform Bill of 1884 extending suffrage to rural workers. Benjamin D’Israeli, author of the classic proletarian novel Sibyl, championed the 1867 measure and, as a visible leader of the people, would later become Britain’s Prime Minister after the growth of the Labour Party.
A second appeal was made to correct a serious political injustice as seen by the drafters of the petition. In order to protect voters from outside force in making their voting decision, the secret ballot was demanded. This, in turn, was instituted as law upon the passage of the Ballot Act of 1872 which allowed the secret ballot for the vote of Parliament.
Finally, the petition wished to reduce qualifications for holding office in Parliament to the "approbation of the constituency" (Petition). Nonetheless, this alone was not seen as enough to secure a working class investment in government since most of the class could not afford to give up their regular wages to serve in Parliament. It was for this reason the petitioners asked that membership in Parliament be made a paid position. Property qualifications were dismissed and, just before the turn of the century, a bill was passed enacting a form of remuneration for Parliamentary members so that they would be given pay for time spent in public service. In fact, the only demand made by the petitioners that was not met by the government before the turn of the century was the demand for the annual elections of Parliamentary members, which still today has not been met since members are still elected to serve five year terms.
Eugene V. Debs, staunch unionist and the man who led the American Social Democratic Party to the peak of its power in the early 1900’s, wrote that "the labor movement means more... than a paltry increase in wages and the strike necessary to secure it; its higher object is to... abolish wage-slavery and achieve the freedom of the whole working class" (Des 134). Debs makes it quite clear that he writes under the influence of Marx’s writings. In his view the labor union would be the key figure in a Marxist revolution of any form; a Marxist revolution such as has occurred in England.
One may argue, however, that there could be no possible situation that would leave a capitalist system in place while instituting Marxist principles. Nevertheless, the heart of Marxist thought is embodied in the new democracy created by the working class’ efforts during the Victorian era. Marx and Engels referred to the working class laborers as commodities, "like every other article of commerce," that are forced to "sell themselves piecemeal" and are subject to the fluctuations of the free market (68). This is wrong, though, because it is not the laborer that is the commodity but what the laborer has to offer the manufacturer. Gaskell puts it best when Barton wildly attacks the economic principles that has forced him into wage-slavery saying: "You’ll say they’n getten capital an we’n getten none. I say our labour’s our capital and we ought to draw interest on that" (66). At no time during or after the industrial revolution does the proletariat feel subjugated to the bourgeoisie. In both Mary Barton and North and South, the conclusions of the novels bring understanding between the two classes. The bourgeoisie is reliant on the proletariat for all they have attained in life. Only through the unification of capital and labor can profit be produced. As the Nineteenth century twisted itself into the Twentieth, both the master and the laborer realized this. For this reason the working-class became invested in society and both found a close equality of power under these economic principles. So long as the laborers collectivize and so long as the masters need proletarian labor for their capital, so long will this occur. Thus the working class has investment in a capital society and a Marxist revolution has taken place
_____. "National Petition." 20 Oct. 1998. Online. http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/gi/history/compdem.html
Daly, Macdonald. Introduction. Mary Barton. By Elizabeth Gaskell. Ed. Macdonald Daly. London: Penguin Books, 1996. vii-xxx.
Debs, Eugene V. "Unionism and Socialism." Debs: His Life, Writings, and Speeches. Girard, Kansas: Appeal to Reason, 1908.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
Marx, Karl. Critique of the Gothe Programe. International Publishers.
Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964.
Randall, Francis B. Introduction. The Communist Manifesto. By Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Ed. Joseph Katz. New York: Washington Square Press, 1964. p7-40.
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