International Workingmen’s Association 1869
Record of Speech by Karl Marx

On the Policy of the British Government with respect to the Irish Prisoners

Source: MECW Volume 21, p. 411;
First published: in full in Marx and Engels, Works 2nd Russian Edition, 1960.

From the Minutes of the General Council Meetings of November 23 and 30, 1869


Cit. Marx Cit. Mottershead has given a history of Gladstone. I could give another, but that has nothing to do with the question before us. The petitions which were adopted at the meetings were quite civil, but he found fault with the speeches by which they were supported. Castlereagh was as good a man as Gladstone and I found today in the Political Register[482] that he used the same words against the Irish as Gladstone, and Cobbett made the same reply as I have done.

When the electoral tour commenced all the Irish candidates spouted about amnesty but Gladstone did nothing till the Irish municipalities moved.

I have not spoken of the people killed abroad, because you cannot compare the Hungarian war with the Fenian insurrection. We might compare it with 1798 [483] and then the comparison would not be favourable to the English.

I repeat that political prisoners are not treated anywhere so bad as in England.

Cit. Mottershead is not going to tell us his opinion of the Irish; if he wants to know what other people think of the English let him read Ledru-Rollin and other Continental writers. I have always defended the English and do so still.

These resolutions are not to be passed to release the prisoners, the Irish themselves have abandoned that.

It is a resolution of sympathy with the Irish and a review of the conduct of the government, it may bring the English and the Irish together. Gladstone has to contend with the opposition of The Times, the Saturday Review, etc., if we speak out boldly; on the other side, we may support him against an opposition to which he might otherwise have to succumb. He was in office during the Civil War and was responsible for what the government did and if the North was low when he made his declaration, so much the worse for his patriotism.

Cit. Odger is right; if we wanted the prisoners released, this would not be the way to do it, but it is more important to make a concession to the Irish people than to Gladstone ... [484]

Cit. Marx had no objection to leave out the word “deliberately”, as a prime minister must necessarily be considered to do everything deliberately. [485]


Cit. Marx said if Odger’s suggestions were followed the Council would put themselves on an English party standpoint. [486] They could not do that. The Council must show the Irish that they understood the question and the Continent that they showed no favour to the British Government. The Council must treat the Irish like the English would treat the Polish.

482 Marx had in mind Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register. In it William Cobbett and other English radicals sharply criticised the policy of the English Government, notably its police measures in Ireland.

483 The British authorities brutally put down the Irish national liberation movement in 1798. Marx compares this act with those during the revolution of 1849 in Hungary.

484 In the Minutes of this meeting published in Reynolds’s Newspaper, November 28, 1869, the concluding sentence of Marx’s speech is given as follows: “The question was which was most important — to conciliate the Irish or make this resolution acceptable to Mr. Gladstone.

485 On November 23, 1869, during the debate of the draft resolution of the General Council of the International on the English Government’s policy towards the Irish prisoners, Odger, a trade union leader, proposed to delete the word “deliberately” from the sentence “Mr. Gladstone deliberately insults the Irish nation”. At the next meeting on November 30, 1869, he made new attempts to subdue the revolutionary and anti-government tone of the resolution.

486 In contrast to Marx, who sought to expose the colonialist policy of the English Government, Odger demanded that the expressions used by Marx in the draft resolution on Gladstone’s policy should be toned down. Otherwise, as Odger explained, the Council would fail to secure the release of the prisoners. He reminded the Council members that, in his replies to the petitions, Gladstone had expressed dissatisfaction with the sharp tone of some of them. Odger justified and defended Gladstone’s policy. This was an attempt by reformist trade union leaders to reduce the resolution from a document exposing English policy and expressing solidarity with the fighters for Ireland’s independence to a humble appeal to the ruling classes for clemency.