“DRAT THE British!” Karl Marx once said in frustration at his London exile. When the European revolutions of 1848 began to crumble Marx was forced to come to London.
Save for a few short trips abroad and to the seaside, he lived here until his death on 14 March 1883.
But his stay in Britain also helped to make the Marx we know today. “Here Marx found what he was looking for, what he needed,” said the German socialist Wilhelm Liebknecht. “The bricks and mortar for his work Capital, which could only have been written in London.”
At first Marx hoped that revolution in Europe would gain a second wind. It was not to be. In the 1850s and early 1860s European capitalism entered a period of stability.
Marx was then able to draw out his analysis of capitalism, observing “the classic ground” of the capitalist mode of production first hand.
The Britain that Marx was exiled to was the US of its day. The Union Jack already flew over a large part of the world, and during Marx’s lifetime more colonies would be conquered. British capitalism was the power of the world’s first great globalisation.
The world’s goods were increasingly carried in British ships. World finance was centred on the City of London and what Disraeli, the Tory politician, called its “mighty loan managers, on whose fiat the fate of kings and empires sometimes depend”. And if economic power was not enough, British capitalism could always depend on the Royal Navy to open up routes for trade.
Britain was also changing within. The 1851 census recorded that 51 percent now lived in the towns. No other major economy would achieve this before the 20th century. London was the world’s greatest city, with a population of 3.8 million by 1881. In the countryside the peasantry had all but disappeared. Aristocrats owned the land and rented it to farmers.
But the landowners were themselves capitalists. They developed their properties for profit. The dukes of Bedford, Norfolk and Westminster earned huge rents from the areas of London that Marx walked around.
Even if they still used ancient titles and enjoyed fancy dress, they merged with the lords of finance and industry to create a ruling class that was united.
But if capitalism allowed the accumulation of wealth that Marx analysed in Capital, it also brought misery, some of which he experienced. In its first years in the capital the Marx family lived a life of “bourgeois misery” in lodgings in Dean Street, Soho.
London concentrated not only wealth but poverty and degradation. There were said to be 3,000 brothels in metropolitan London at this time.
There were many times when the Marx family was reduced to living on bread and potatoes. “I live in pawn,” Marx said. It was only help from Engels in Manchester that enabled them to survive.
Even so it was a life of ill health, the death of children and low morale until they finally managed to escape to Hampstead in north London in 1856. Yet his personal troubles still continued. His wife, Jenny, had a stillborn child, and later she caught smallpox.
Marx’s close acquaintance with developments of 19th century capitalism enabled him to go beyond much of the critical thinking of the 1840s. But it is not true that he crudely generalised from Britain’s experience.
He was well aware that as capitalism spread in the world it did so unevenly. Capitalism could not be avoided—in that sense Britain was the future.
But its forms would vary. Looking at Britain’s Indian Empire he saw how as capitalism spread so it also began to twist development so that it would not simply be a repetition of the British case. But it would take later Marxists to really deal with these problems.
They would also have to deal with what happened as capitalism in Britain and other countries shifted towards monopoly and state intervention. These were possibilities he wrote about, but only after his death would the trends become clearer.
There is another dimension to Marx’s time in London—his contact with the working class. Some accounts minimise this, making Marx an academic seeing the world from the British Museum. But no serious socialist develops that way.
Engels led the way in 1843 when he not only observed factory conditions in the north but made contact with radical Chartists. Engels dedicated his book on the condition of the working class “to the working classes of Great Britain”.
Reading it, Marx saw a description of the working class as a political force the like of which he had not yet met in Germany or France.
In Europe before 1848, movements of protest drew on artisan and craft workers. But in Britain the working class movement was different. It drew on large numbers of factory workers who barely existed in the rest of Europe.
The potential power of these “first born sons of modern industry” could be seen in the 1840s in their support for the Chartist movement for working class political rights.
But it could also be seen in the world’s first general strike in 1842, and it could be seen in their fight for union rights. The British trade unions in the 1840s were better organised than trade unions in the rest of Europe.
Marx first briefly visited London and Manchester with Engels in 1845, and made contact with the Chartists. When he returned in 1849 there were new contacts, and in 1850 The Communist Manifesto was published in English in the Red Republican newspaper.
Marx’s direct links with the British working class movement weakened in the 1850s. They grew again in the 1860s when he became secretary of the First International.
These more engaged years were the context for major developments in his political analysis. Here we find Marx thinking through issues like that of racism, as he considered the anti-Irish culture that existed in parts of the working class. Here too in 1871, when defending the Paris Commune, he saw that socialism could not just be about seizing state power. Workers had to make it for themselves.
Even the completion of the first volume of Capital in 1867 reflected the greater urgency of these years of more active engagement.
Theory does not thrive on air, least of all the air of the British Museum. Liebknecht was right—it was in Britain and London that Marx found the “bricks and mortar” for his work.