Capitalism’s industrial revolution gave birth to its own gravediggers, argues Neil Faulkner as he examines the rise and fall of Chartism.

The French Revolution had been driven forwards by a popular movement of working people. It had inspired hopes of far-reaching democratic and social reform. But after the Thermidorian coup of 27-28 July 1794, the popular radicals went down to defeat.

Their movement had been a class alliance riddled with contradictions. The Jacobin leaders represented a small radical minority of the bourgeoisie. Most activists belonged to the urban petty-bourgeoisie of professionals, artisans, and small traders.

Wage-labourers did not form a clearly defined social class with its own political identity. Almost all were employed in small workplaces. Many aspired to become small property-owners on their own account. Most followed the lead of the petty-bourgeoisie with whom they lived and worked. The sansculottes who formed revolutionary crowds were a mix of small property-owners and wage-labourers.

The peasantry had a similar character. Poor peasants and rural wage-labourers followed the lead of better-off peasants in the struggle against ‘feudalism’. The revolutionary village was united against landlords and tax-collectors.

What made the armies of the French Revolution and Napoleon so powerful was the fact that they were formed of peasant-soldiers defending the gains of the village over the chateau. They fought to prevent the return of the aristocrats.

But there were limits to the gains. The French Revolution’s promise was disappointed because it always remained a ‘bourgeois revolution’ committed to the defence of private property. Neither social equality nor genuine democracy is compatible with private property.

The popular movement was knocked back by those who ruled France after Thermidor. But it was not destroyed. The Revolution had radicalised an entire generation, and thousands of activists were inspired by its ideals long after 1794.

The lessons of defeat were eagerly debated. The conclusions drawn were often wrong. ‘Gracchus’ Babeuf and his ‘Conspiracy of Equals’ sought to overthrow the Directory in a political coup in 1796. But an activist plot is no substitute for a mass movement. Terrorists cannot bring down the state. Babeuf was arrested, tried, and executed in 1797.

But his revolutionary ideas survived. ‘Nature has given to every man the right to an enjoyment of an equal share in all property,’ he had declared. Here in a nutshell was the issue which would henceforward divide petty-bourgeois radicals from working-class socialists.

Ideas without a movement are powerless. A movement without ideas is directionless. The essence of what Eric Hobsbawm has called ‘the dual revolution’ – the combination of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution – is that it represents a fusion of ideas and a movement that made total social transformation possible.

The Chartists were the first full expression of this fusion.

The French Revolution had had a powerful impact in Britain. Tom Paine’s defence of its principles, The Rights of Man, sold 100,000 copies. Radical networks with Jacobin politics like the London Corresponding Society experienced mushroom growth. Mutinies paralysed the Royal Navy in 1797. Ireland erupted in revolution in 1798.

Repression crushed the resistance, but, as Edward Thompson explained in The Making of the English Working Class, the agitation of the 1790s created a radical tradition which meshed with a rising wave of class struggle in the early 19th century.

Britain’s Industrial Revolution was creating a class of a new sort: a proletariat of wage-labourers concentrated in factories and cities.

Monopoly and hideous accumulation of capital in a few hands,’ wrote radical leader John Thelwell in 1796, ‘… carry in their own enormity the seeds of cure … Whatever presses men together … is favourable to the diffusion of knowledge, and ultimately promotive of human liberty. Hence, every large workshop and manufactory is a sort of political society, which no act of Parliament can silence and no magistrate disperse.’

Unlike the property-owning or property-aspiring sansculottes of the French Revolution, the proletariat of the Industrial Revolution could emancipate itself only through collective ownership. Steam-engines, coal-mines, canal barges, and textile mills could not be subdivided. If the workers overthrew their bosses, they would have to run the workplaces as co-operatives.

The proletariat was therefore a collective class in every sense. The workers’ struggle tended towards the abolition of private property – tended, that is, towards creating the preconditions for the social equality and political democracy that the French Revolution had failed to deliver.

The early struggles of the British proletariat took many forms. There were ‘Luddite’ campaigns of machine-smashing to prevent deskilling, wage cuts, and unemployment. There were mass demonstrations to demand political reform, like that at Peterloo in Manchester in 1819, which was attacked by mounted militia with sabres.

There were waves of strikes and unionisation, notably in the mid-late 1820s, and again in the mid 1830s. The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union recruited half a million members in 1834. And when six Dorset farm labourers (‘the Tolpuddle Martyrs’) were deported for joining a union that year, 100,000 attended a solidarity demonstration at Kings Cross.

This rising wave of struggle peaked in the Chartist agitation of 1836-1848. The movement grew out of a double failure. First, the 1832 Reform Bill had given the vote to the middle class, but had left the working class disenfranchised. The cross-class alliance which had campaigned for reform immediately broke up in acrimony.

Second, the revolutionary trade unionism of the Grand National had collapsed when a wave of strikes was smashed and the organisation was wrecked by internal rows.

Neither alliance with the liberal middle class nor the call for a general strike had advanced the cause of the working class. But the turbulence of the 1830s was evidence of a broad radical mood.

In 1838, the newly formed London Working-men’s Association published a ‘People’s Charter’ of six demands: equal electoral districts; abolition of the property qualification for MPs; universal manhood suffrage; annual parliaments; vote by ballot; and payment of MPs.

The Charter was endorsed by gigantic open-air meetings: 200,000 in Glasgow, 80,000 in Newcastle, 250,000 in Leeds, 300,000 in Manchester. A new mass movement was born.

The Newport rising of Chartist miners in 1839A Petition in support of the Charter collected 1,280,000 signatures, and a Chartist Convention assembled in London in 1839. But Parliament rejected the Charter and ordered suppression of the movement. There were mass arrests. Police from London turned the Bull Ring in Birmingham into a battlefield. An armed demonstration of Chartist miners in Newport was ambushed and gunned down.

The Chartist movement soon recovered, presenting a new Petition, this time with 3,315,000 signatures, in 1842. This, too, was rejected. A wave of strikes against wage cuts turned into a political mass strike in defence of the Charter. But again, repression broke the movement.

It rose for a third time, in 1848; but it was weaker now. Only 1,975,000 signatures had been collected – against a hoped-for five million – and a planned great demonstration on Kennington Green was small, perhaps no more than 30,000, and certainly far too few to challenge the army of police, specials, troops, and even artillery deployed by the state against it.

There were many reasons for Chartism’s failure. The movement’s high-points coincided with economic downturns. Demonstrations diminished as employment and wages rose. And after 1848, the British economy entered a long boom.

The working class was still embryonic in the 1840s. A majority of people continued to live in the countryside, and many of those in towns were workshop-masters or self-employed craftsman rather than true proletarians.

This was reflected in the politics of Chartism. Some leaders were relatively conservative advocates of ‘moral force’. Others favoured ‘physical force’ – demos, strikes, even insurrection – but were often inconsistent and indecisive about it.

To some degree, these political divisions mirrored a social division between a more petty-bourgeois movement in London and a more proletarian one in the new industrial districts of the North.

Nonetheless, for all its faults and failings, Chartism represents the explosive entry of a new and revolutionary class onto history’s stage. Capitalism had given rise to its own gravediggers.


Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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