Frederick Engels

The Position of the Political Parties

Written: on December 19, 1842;
First published: in the Rheinische Zeitung No. 358, December 24, 1842;
Marked with the sign ‘X’;
Source: MECW Volume 2;
Transcribed: in 2000 for by Andy Blunden.

From Lancashire, December 19. Complicated as the present situation in England seems if one sticks, as the Englishman does, to what is most immediate and close at hand, the external practical aspect, it is nevertheless simple if one reduces externals to the underlying content. In England there exist only three parties of any importance: the landed aristocracy, the moneyed aristocracy, and radical democracy. The first, the Tory party, is by its nature and historical development the purely medieval, consistent, reactionary party, that of the old nobility, which fraternises with the “historical” school of law in Germany"” and forms the pillar of the Christian state. The kernel of the second party — the Whigs — consists of the merchants and manufacturers, the majority of whom form the so-called middle class. This middle class — which includes everyone who is a gentleman, i. e., has a decent income without being excessively wealthy-is, however, a middle class only compared with the wealthy nobility and capitalists; in relation to the workers its position is that of an aristocracy, In a country like England, which lives only by industry and therefore has a multitude of workers, people will be much more conscious of this than, for example, in Germany, where the middle class comprises the craftsmen and peasants, and where such an extensive class of factory workers is unknown. As a result, the Whig party will be forced into the ambiguous position of the juste-milieu as soon as the working class begins to be conscious of itself. And this is taking place now. The working class is daily becoming more and more imbued with the radical-democratic principles of Chartism and is increasingly coming to recognise them as the expression of its collective consciousness. However, at present this party is only in process of formation and therefore cannot yet act with full vigour.

Needless to say, in addition to these three main parties there are all kinds of transitional shades, and at the moment two of them are of some importance, although devoid of any basic principles. The first stands halfway between Whiggism and Toryism; its representatives are Peel and Russell, and it is sure of a majority in the House of Commons in the near future and therefore of forming the government. The other, the “radical” shade, is halfway between Whiggism and Chartism; it is represented by half-a-dozen Members of Parliament and a few periodicals, in particular The Examiner, and its principles, although not formally expressed, are the basis of the National Anti-Corn Law League a With the further development of Chartism the first group is bound to gain in importance, since it represents the unity of Whig and Tory principles against Chartism, a unity which the latter expressly stresses. As a result, the second group is bound to come to nothing. The position of these parties in relation to one another is shown most clearly in their attitude to the Corn Laws. [184] The Tories will not budge an inch. The nobility knows that its power, apart from the constitutional sphere of the House of Lords, lies mainly in its wealth. With free import of corn, the nobility would be forced to conclude new contracts with the tenant farmers on less advantageous terms. All its wealth is in landed property, the value of which bears a fixed relation to rent and falls with the latter. Rents are now so high that even with the present import tariff the tenant farmers are being ruined; free import of corn would bring down rents, and with them the value of landed property, by a third. Sufficient reason for the aristocracy to hold fast to its long-standing right, which ruins agriculture and reduces the poor in the country to starvation. The Whigs, always a perfect juste-milieu, have proposed a fixed import tariff of 8 shillings per quarter; this is just low enough to let in foreign corn and spoil the market for the tenant farmer, and just high enough to deprive the tenants of any grounds for demanding new terms of lease and to establish in the country an average price for bread just as high as it is at present. Thus the wisdom of the juste-milieu is ruining the country even more surely than the obduracy of consistent reaction. On this question, the “radicals” are truly radical for once and are demanding free import of corn. But The Examiner only summoned up the courage to do so eight days ago, while the Anti-Corn Law League from the outset confined itself so emphatically to the struggle against the existing Corn Laws and the sliding-scale a that up to the last moment it continued to support the Whigs. Gradually, however, absolutely free import of corn and “free trade” in general have become the battle of the radicals, and the Whigs obligingly shout with them for “free trade”, which they understand to mean “juste-milieu” import tariffs. It goes without saying that the Chartists are totally opposed to import tariffs on corn. But what will come of all this? That corn imports are bound to become free is as certain as that the Tories are bound to be overthrown, by peaceful or by forcible means. One can only argue about the manner in which this change will come about. Probably the very next session of Parliament will bring Peel’s renunciation of the sliding-scale and, with it, of full-blown Toryism. The nobility will give way on everything that does not compel it to lower its rent charges, but no further. In any case, the Peel-Russell coalition, the Parliamentary centre, has the most immediate chance of forming a government, and by its juste-milieu measures it will delay a decision on the corn question as long as possible. How long, however, depends not on it, but on the people.