19th Century

“A Rascal … but rich”: Karl Marx and G. W. M. Reynolds | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo, a writer and historian based in Leeds, UK. This post is a brief outline of an episode in G.W.M. Reynolds’s life from a forthcoming book titled: Victorian England’s Biggest-Selling Author: The Revolutionary Life of G.W.M. Reynolds (2022).

Factions and Splinter Groups

After the government rejected the Chartists’ ‘monster petition’ in 1848, the movement split into various factions (who were constantly squabbling with each other). There were the Red Republicans and socialists, among whom were the likes of George Julian Harney and George W.M. Reynolds.

G.W.M. Reynolds (Stephen Basdeo Personal Collection)

There was the middle-class dominated National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association, as well as smaller groups of Chartists peopled by the likes of Ernest Jones, who thought that the key to gaining universal suffrage was ‘moral force’ and an alliance with the middle classes. Jones’s position was completely opposed to that of Reynolds and Harney, who were more ‘revolutionary’ in their outlook.

Ernest Jones

Reynold was, to put it mildly, one of the most outspoken activists on what we might call the ‘hard left’ of the later Chartist movement. The newspaper he founded, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, quickly became the main organ of radical politics in England.

Yet often Reynolds let his mouth (or his pen) run away with him, and in 1858 Jones sued Reynolds for defamation.

Later edition of Gammage’s History of Chartism

Gammage’s History of Chartism (1854)

In 1852 Jones had founded a newspaper that was intended to rival Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper and promote moral force Chartism. Jones’s People’s Paper, as it was called, was never a serious rival to Reynolds’s own newspaper as Jones never had the far-reaching ‘brand’ that Reynolds did.

In the meantime, the first history book of the Chartist movement was published in 1854 titled The History of the Chartist Movement.[1] Written by Robert Gammage, the book alleged that Jones was guilty of a number of shady business practices including embezzling funds from the People’s Paper. Gammage also alleged that, when Jones was elected to the executive committee of a Chartist association in 1852, he had rigged the vote in his favour.

The allegations against Jones were completely false but when Gammage’s book was first published Jones appears to have brushed them off. After all, few people would read Gammage’s expensive book and Jones’s employees at the People’s Paper knew the accusations were untrue.

Reynolds Gets Carried Away

However, Gammage’s allegations received further amplification when they were repeated several times in Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper and Reynolds’s Miscellany between 1858 and 1859, to an audience of hundreds of thousands (they were two of the biggest-selling papers of the period, after all).

Jones sued Reynolds for libel and won. Yet the damages were not extensive for Reynolds who was ordered to pay only £2 as well as Jones’s legal costs. Reynolds was also required to apologise and cease his smear campaign against Jones.

The first issue of Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper

Jones had claimed that Reynolds’s accusations had caused the People’s Paper to founder and that he had had to close the newspaper down as a result. This of course would be difficult to prove; libel law as it then stood required someone to prove that they had suffered a financial loss, and the judge reasoned that, as Reynolds was merely repeating information that was already available in the public domain (from Gammage’s book), then Reynolds was not guilty of creating a new libel but he was guilty of giving further amplification to it.

In January 1859, as the case was brought to a close, the Lord Chief Justice summarised the case as follows:

All of us may disagree with Mr Ernest Jones’s political sentiments—all of us may hold him to be a political enthusiast; but I think the proceedings of this day show that there has been nothing sordid in his conduct, and that, after this proceeding, not a shadow of imputation can rest upon him, nor a shadow of pretence for the imputations made.[2]

Marx and Engels

One gets the sense that Jones was primarily concerned with clearing his name, rather than winning a big settlement. However, the proceedings of the case drew the attention of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of the Communist Manifesto (1848).

Karl Marx and F. Engels

Marx was briefly associated with Jones and had written several articles for the People’s Paper between 1852 and 1856. For a variety of reasons Marx distrusted Reynolds, although both Reynolds and Marx agreed that Jones was the ‘dupe’ of the middle classes,[3] and Jones’s proposed alliances with the middle classes were the reason that Marx stopped writing for his paper.[4]

But the entire spat between Jones and Reynolds appears to have amused Marx who wrote about it to his friend Friedrich Engels. Their private correspondence reveals what the fathers of communism thought of the whole affair, and of Reynolds in particular:

I enclose extracts from Reynolds about Jones. You will see for yourself where R gives facts and a judgment based on facts, and where he is airing his venom. R is a much bigger rascal than Jones, but he is a rich and able speculator. The mere fact that he has turned into an out-and-out Chartist shows that his position must still be a ‘bearable’ one.[5]

Reynolds was indeed rich at this point. As the proprietor of a best-selling newspaper, a literary miscellany, author of over 50 novels, and a genteel home in London and a holiday home in Herne Bay, Kent, Marx remarked, with some justification, that Reynolds was ‘every bit bourgeois’.[6]

Reynolds was a Red Republican and closer in spirit to Marx’s revolutionary outlook than the gradualist and reformist Jones, but Marx must have known that Reynolds could sometimes be unpleasant when he attacked people, hence the remark about Reynolds ‘airing his venom’.

Yet while Reynold was a rascal, Marx thought that Ernest Jones was ‘incredibly stupid’. When other bourgeois Chartists had sued each other, said Marx, the winners had at least got their debts paid—Jones emerged with a measly £2.

Public Opinion

Marx and Engels were not the only contemporary observers to pass comment on the case for public opinion seemed to be firmly on Jones’s side. The Saturday Review accused Reynolds of ‘dirt throwing’ while a commentator in the Leeds Mercury was firmly on the side of Ernest Jones and wished that the damages awarded had been higher, and the writer then went on to attack Reynolds’s novel The Mysteries of London for its immorality.[7]

Seven Years Later

Seven years after the court case Jones must have forgiven Reynolds. They may have disagreed with the means of obtaining universal suffrage, but when the chance came to campaign to extend the franchise once again, the two set aside their differences and became leading members of the National Reform League, which played a major part in getting the government to pass the Reform Act of 1867.

[1] R.G. Gammage, A History of the Chartist Movement (London, 1854), 392.

[2] Ernest Jones, Libel Exposed: Being a Full Report of the Action for Libel, Ernest Jones. G.W.M. Reynolds, Tried in the Queen’s Bench (London, 1859), 7

[3] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Engels, January 14, 1858’, cited in John Saville, Ernest Jones: Chartist (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1952), 242.

[4] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Engels, October 21, 1858’, cited in Saville, 243.

[5] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Engels, October 8, 1858’, cited in Saville, 242.

[6] Karl Marx, ‘Marx to Engels, October 7, 1858’, cited in Saville, 242.

[7] ‘Ernest Jones’, Saturday Review, 16 July 1859, 72; ‘Ernest Jones’, Leeds Mercury, 12 July 1859, 4.

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