Dorothy Thompson’s writing on Chartism showed early working-class politics as it really was, a real challenge to the ruling class of the time, argues John Westmoreland
Dorothy Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism, ed. Stephen Roberts (Verso 2015), xviii, 334pp.
Editor Stephen Roberts was taught by Dorothy Thompson as an undergraduate and postgraduate. In this book he has brought together a series of essays by Dorothy Thompson which encapsulate her life’s work as the preeminent historian of Chartism. This is an extremely valuable volume for socialists and historians, and it is useful at several different levels.
Firstly the book offers a master class in historical research and presentation. All Thompson’s conclusions are founded on broad and critical research of the primary evidence. Secondly, she brought to light the role of over-looked but important participants in the Chartist movement, with great sympathy and understanding, especially the role of women chartists. And lastly Thompson rightly holds the different schools of thought about Chartism to account. As a life-long socialist and political activist, and for many years a member of the Communist Party, she had a series of run-ins with fellow travellers who wanted to make the evidence of Chartism fit a mechanical theory of historical change; when the evidence wasn’t up to it they either became extremely selective in their use of it, or took refuge in sweeping generalisations that were unsupportable.
Chartism, class and language
When working-class people enter the stage of history, their part is unrehearsed. They do not emerge with fully formed theories of the world, and a clear perception of what history demands of them. Their ideas, their language and the political demands that they make show the scars and deformities with which the years of oppression have burdened them. Their desire to make change happen is what makes them dangerous to the ruling class. Thus the Chartists were considered by governments between 1830 and 1848 as a revolutionary threat. It was a threat that needed to be met with soldiers and an expanded police force, as thousands of workers went on strike, rallied, demonstrated and rioted in support of extending the vote to working-class households, so that the horrors of poverty pay and child labour in mine and mill might be remedied.
Dorothy Thompson’s work on Chartism towers over her contemporaries. Some left-wing historians of her day were overly concerned with the Chartists’ ‘reformism’. For example the Chartists campaigned to extend the right to vote to all workers, rather than trying to take over the economy and state. At the same time Thompson had to fight off historians of the right who explained Chartism as merely a response to a downturn in the trade cycle and stressed ties to middle-class reformers, and the Chartist’s use of religious language in their hymns, prayers and moral imperatives.
Thompson’s answer to these schools of thought is neatly summed up in the title of the book, and one of the previously unpublished essays it contains; ‘The Dignity of Chartism’. Thompson’s analysis is that Chartism was a solidly working-class movement; Chartism was a fight for political solutions to pressing social concerns; and the methods of Chartism were revolutionary, with mass protest at its centre. This gives the Chartists their dignity; a truthful and sympathetic analysis, based on an understanding of their struggle.
The first six essays in the book deal with the problems of interpreting Chartism. Thompson concerns herself with historians who argue that Chartism should be seen as part of a movement for reform that was often led by middle-class reformers, and even some reformers from the landed class. They argue that the demands of the Charter were not the sole property of Chartists. Wealthy reformers like Henry Hunt and Richard Cobden were recognised by many Chartist as people with whom they could work. Similarly the Anti-Corn Law League, which opposed tariffs on imported grain, and was led by an industrial bourgeoisie against the interests of the landed gentry, was seen as an ally of Chartism as it could bring cheap bread and alleviate suffering. Much is made by these historians of there being no Chartist revolutionary theory – no Chartist Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. Often Chartist tracts, and reports of Chartist meetings from police spies, reveal the use of language more charged with Christian morality than socialism. This evidence is used to show the alleged ideological dependence of the Chartists on their ‘natural masters’.
Historical interpretation of this sort is all too common today. It contains a narrow and prescriptive approach that lazily transports the mind-set of the modern historian with all their own prejudices back in time. Rather than reveal the history that the Chartists made, these historians criticise them in terms of their own modern-day values. They cite the language of Chartists abstractly, disconnecting it from the struggle they were fighting. Thompson offers the young historian a master class in how we should carry out research. The historian who is going to access primary documents needs continually to ask themselves, ‘what would this mean to the people who were there?’
A good example that Thompson uses (p.24) of the difficulty we face in getting the contemporary value of an historical source is to be found in the use of Ebenezer Elliott’s work. Elliott was known as the Corn Law Rhymer and he wrote mainly about the plight of the poor. Here is a verse from his Peoples’ Anthem:
When wilt thou save the people?
Oh, God of mercy! When?
Not kings and lords, but nations!
Not thrones and crowns, but men!
Flowers of thy heart, oh, God, are they!
Let them not pass, like weeds, away!
Their heritage a sunless day! God! Save the people.
Should we object that Elliott uses ‘people’ instead of working class? That he sees the agent of change as God and not the working class? Doesn’t his appeal to save the ‘nation’ betray an attachment to his ‘natural masters’? If you don’t understand why he wrote these words, or the audience whom he wrote them for, then yes. Thompson took a different view.
Thompson’s answer to these questions is weighty, and instructive. The whole point of understanding a moment in history is to set it in context. What came before it, and what came afterwards is the essential question to ask. The Peoples’ Anthempresupposes a criticism of a national anthem, and that surely has some revolutionary potential. The demands he makes of God are democratic. He uses the Christian idiom to gain a wider audience for his ideas, and tests God’s omnipotence by demanding he turns against ‘kings and lords’ and ‘thrones and crowns’. This is clearly a poem for the working class, and against the ruling class. The poem marks a shift from acceptance of ruling-class authority and religious ideology to one that fits the real ‘people’ – the working class – redefining the concept of nation in class terms.
Dorothy Thompson did much more than criticize others though. Her research, driven as it was by compassion for her subject and the desire to present the study of the Chartists in their own words and feelings, adds much to our understanding. Part of this work was to uncover those courageous unsung heroes that get overlooked by mainstream historians, but whose dedication carried the movement along. The study of Chartist women is of particular significance. As the Charter’s main demand was for full manhood suffrage, many historians drew the conclusion that the role of women was simply to support the men. Indeed many feminist historians have overlooked the important role that women played.
One important motivation for Chartism was to rescue the family from the predations of wage slavery. Child and female labour in the mines and mills left many husbands out of work or seeking casual employment. Thompson stresses that the drive to save their children, and escape the slum houses they inhabited, drove women to become Chartists, and to fight for the Charter. Life was short and the conditions were brutal. The Women’s Manifesto of Newcastle Upon Tyne noted:
‘Our husbands are over-wrought, our houses half-furnished, our families ill-fed and our children uneducated’ (p.45).
The huge demonstrations Chartists mustered would have been impossible without the active participation of women. And women were certainly not passive onlookers. When soldiers marched against Chartists in the Calder Valley, women were seen carrying aprons full of rocks to hurl at them. Women mocked the soldiers, picketed shops and inns that served them, and above all endured the same privations that men did in the fight for the Charter. It belittles female Chartists to write them off as mere supporters. As Thompson put it:
‘Neither the massive popular demonstrations nor the support given to the imprisoned and victimized leaders would have been possible had not the movement enjoyed the support of both men and women in the manufacturing districts’ (p.47).
This is superb history; understanding the workers’ movement in its entirety, revealing Chartism’s dynamic, and weighing its achievement. Thompson’s working of the mass of evidence allows her to make the telling judgements few can equal.
One of the greatest delights to be found in the book is the previously unpublished essay about Chartism in Halifax. It is headed, The ‘Dignity of Chartism’: Halifax as a Chartist Centre,and was written in partnership with her husband Edward Thompson. The essay takes up some fifty pages and is a comprehensive account of Chartism from the 1830s with its Luddite roots through to its links with the national reform movement in the 1860s. It is history from below. The reader gets to know Chartist Halifax in all its glory.
The extremely detailed research that was the hallmark of both Thompsons brings the reader face to face with the Chartist fight. We get to know the contending parties, with the powerful Akroyd cloth manufacturers at one time living in their mansion behind defensive barricades, and the inspired leaders of the Chartists, like the weaver Ben Rushton. It is a rip-roaring account of Chartism. The graphic descriptions of the abject poverty that this hub of northern manufacturing produced is essential reading to anyone who wants to understand the way that inhumanity is a precondition of free-market capitalism. The likely result of this pool of misery, as Rushton himself described it, was for the population to ‘degenerate into paupers, poachers and thieves’, unless he could lead them into Chartism, which he did (p.79).
An important point that comes out of this essay is the way Chartism acted as a uniting force. The introduction of power looms into the Calder Valley had very divisive results. It pitched hand-loom weaving against the new technology. The experience of handloom weavers, wool combers and other traditional cloth manufacturers was one of extreme precariousness. Women and children were favoured over men with the result that wages could be ground down to their lowest level. Chartism united the working class around a common set of demands: the six points of the Charter.
The struggle went through a series of stages, with appeals for reform being ignored by the manufacturers despite considerable pressure from some respected middle-class reformers, who catalogued the disastrous state of health and housing for factory hands. This led to the growth of militancy and saw strikes and riots, the deployment of soldiers, and armed conflict.
The essay is studded with gems from the archives. 1842 saw Chartism explode into confrontation. The following description is from a contemporary report of a Bradford contingent of Chartists coming to the aid of their Halifax brethren:
‘The sight was just one of those that is impossible to forget. They came pouring down the wide road in thousands, taking up its whole breadth – a gaunt, famished-looking, desperate multitude armed with huge bludgeons, pitch forks and pikes … As they marched they thundered out a stirring melody’ (pp.98-9).
The essay should be seen as a model about how to research and present history. Fascinating for the reader, but true to the Chartists themselves.
Marxist teleology criticized
Towards the end of her life Dorothy Thompson wrote about what she described as ‘Marxist teleology’. Her criticism of Marxism was aimed at her former comrades in the Communist Party, and in that sense is a criticism that many Marxists outside the CP would agree with. Here we need to rescue Marxism from the mechanical formulations of someCommunist Party historians. At the same time we must acknowledge that someCommunists also produced outstanding works; Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm are but two of them.
The final essays in the book criticize what we might call mechanical Marxism. Thompson left the Communist Party. Perhaps out of loyalty to former comrades she doesn’t name names, nor engage in a polemic. This leaves us to talk about the ideas rather than the historians with whom she disagreed.
To younger readers this part of the book might seem obscure, but it is an important historiographical debate. Teleology is defined as explaining something by what it becomes, or what its functionis, for example we might explain an acorn by its functionof becoming an oak tree. Communist historians that had been schooled under Stalin turned Marxism into a deterministic teleology. The functionof the working class was to deliver Communism. The working class and its leaders were then judged on how far they approximated to this function. This was the teleology that Thompson opposed; sterile and deterministic formulations, devoid of compassion, and in the end, completely unhistorical.
As Thompson put it:
‘When condemning revolutionary failures [Marxist] historians often overlooked considerable achievements. They also failed to record activity which did not fit [their] pattern … Marxist teleology has too often distorted the way we look at history’ (p.195).
One of the main objects of Dorothy Thompson’s ire concerning Marxist teleology was the explanation of why Chartism failed to fulfil its ‘historic mission’: the overthrow of capitalism. The explanation of why it failed is all too obvious. British capitalism was expanding domestically and abroad, had a powerful and growing state, an increasingly wealthy and compliant middle class, and the system could afford political reform without risking revolution. By the end of the century a substantial amount of the six points of the Charter had been met: more workers had the vote, trade unions were legal, and to an extent the voice of labour was being heard. It is important to point out that these results were largely achieved by the impact of Chartism on British politics.
Nevertheless some historians felt the need to ‘rescue’ the working class from having failed to achieve its historic mission and rely on the efforts of bourgeois parliamentarians. Thus a grand theoretical explanation emerged in the 1960s, of the working class having its historic function hijacked by the capitalist class. By increasing the wages of skilled workers, the capitalists created a reactionary elite within the working class, who bought into the ruling ideas, and prevented revolutionary struggle. These were the so-called ‘labour lieutenants of capital’. However, as Thompson shows, there is no evidence of the capitalists willingly creating an elite. This ran contrary to all capitalist dogma concerning the function of the free market. The simple lesson should be: if the evidence does not fit the theory, the theory is probably wrong.
A necessary critique
There are however, some necessary criticisms to be made of Dorothy Thompson’s history. These criticisms are made reluctantly in the light of such a brilliant work, but it has to be said there is something not entirely satisfactory about it.
The school ofhistory Thompson represented, usually labelled ‘history-from-below’, was brilliant at letting the workers speak. The workers whose voice was treated with contempt by their masters, have often received little better from the middle-class historians who have written about them, and Dorothy Thompson’s work is a corrective to this failing.
However, a convincing historical explanation needs to be more than a view from below. History is a dynamic process powered by the struggle between twoclasses within an economic and political system. Sometimes the history-from-below method loses sight of that dynamic. It tends to be about a class experience, rather than the capitalist system as a whole. This is a different methodology to the Marxist method which starts with the general picture of capitalism, then comes down to look at the details. Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolutionis probably the greatest demonstration of the Marxist method, where he analyses the crisis of tsarism in general terms, then gets in close to the Tsar’s ministers here, and the workers’ meeting there. The detail serves to both test and develop the overall analysis.
Nevertheless, The Dignity of Chartismis a book of great relevance for today. In the years 1839-42, at the height of the Chartist struggle, capitalism was in its youth. Today it is in its dotage. The neoliberal free-market doctrine was and is the dogma of both eras. The mass eruptions we see today, as with Chartism then, are a result of the relentless pursuit of profit in a mad competition that generates poverty, war and environmental destruction. Read Dorothy Thompson’s marvellous book. Be inspired by the Chartists, and learn how they built a mass movement, through education, agitation and struggle. Then build a mass movement that finishes the job that the Chartists started.
John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.
More articles from this author
- Labour and a ‘national government’: how to dash the hopes of millions
- How socialists should commemorate Peterloo
- State terrorism and the British Empire: The Amritsar Massacre, 1919
- Global school strike for climate kicks off
- Marx and the meaning of private property
- 1919: When British soldiers went on strike
- The sailors that ended the First World War