Chartist Revolution, an important history of the world’s first working-class political movement, shows its relevance to later revolutionary struggles, finds Dominic Alexander
The Chartist movement was the first great independent working-class political movement in an industrial society, and it had a formative impact on both Engels and Marx as their ideas developed in the 1840s. At the time, and ever since, it has been ridiculed, dismissed and marginalised. Academic histories have sometimes even characterised it as an essentially futile and reactionary rejection of the modern world. Others have argued that it was not a true class movement at all, its consciousness being rooted in pre-modern forms. There have been good histories of Chartism as well, but it is certainly welcome to have the case made again, as it is robustly in Chartist Revolution, that the movement represented an era of class-conscious political struggle that reached moments of genuine revolutionary possibility.
Chartism came as a culmination of a long period of political and economic struggle through which, in the classic argument of E. P. Thompson, the working class came into self-conscious existence. This whole era, from the English Jacobins of the 1790s, through Luddism, political radicalism, the growing trade-union movement to the early socialism of the 1820s and 30s, saw almost continuous agitation, activism and protest in one field or another. Sewell provides a suitable selection from this background to Chartism, giving its predecessors their due as the testing grounds out of which Chartist class consciousness arose.
E. P. Thompson’s argument in The Making of the English Working Class (1963) was slighted in some quarters on the grounds that it was only able to end on an optimistic note, with the coalescence of a working-class self-consciousness, because the book ended before Chartism. In this view, Chartism was a step backwards. Sewell disposes of that perspective quite efficiently. One basis for claiming that Chartism did not represent a class movement was, of course, that the demands of the Charter itself were purely concerned with political reform which would have given working-class men the vote.
From the political to the social
The transparent implication of the six points of the Charter, from the vote to the payment of MPs and annual elections, was that achievement of all those demands in one moment would constitute a political revolution. Sewell is clear what Chartists expected to be the result:
‘To believe, as most do, that Chartism was simply a movement for reform, is to miss the point. “The Charter was only a means to an end”, stated the Chartist James Leach, stressing its revolutionary intentions. For the working class the demands of the Charter constituted much more. For them, it was a struggle for a new society … Chartism was the first time ever that British workers fixed their eyes on the seizure of political power’ (p.xxvii).
Sewell further points out that although the Charter contained no direct social demands, it ‘would open the road to working-class power’, with Engels at the time agreeing that it would ‘overthrow the whole English Constitution, Queen and Lords included’ (p.106). A whole range of quotations fleshes this out, such as a Chartist declaration of 1839 which read:
‘Strike! Colliers! Strike for the Charter! … without coal this giant monster, the Steam Engine, cannot work. Your labour, my honest friends, supplies it with strength, for without Coal it is powerless. Stop getting Coal, for Coal supports the money-mongering Capitalists’ (p.158).
Another Chartist succinctly declared in 1842 that ‘Real Chartism is Labour against Capital’ (p.219).
The rich exploration of Chartist words and deeds in this book amply prove the point in any case, but a full understanding of their meaning depends upon looking at Chartism as a phenomenon in motion, and not taking Chartist words in static isolation. The mistake of one group of revisionist historians, such as Gareth Steadman Jones or Patrick Joyce, was to look at Chartist vocabulary and writing effectively isolated from the social dynamics in which they occurred. As a result, such historians were able to deny that Chartism represented any kind of class consciousness at all.
Consciousness comes through struggle
This is a question of historical method, and it is worth returning to what E. P. Thompson said in the first place about how to view class and consciousness in history:
‘the notion of class entails the notion of historical relationship. Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure.’i
Sewell avoids the pitfalls of positivistic butterfly collecting in his approach to the evidence of Chartism by analysing the movement through its struggle and development, so that the context of class struggle can be seen to structure the understanding of people in collective motion.
So while it is true that the movement began with various bourgeois-radical allies, the working-class militancy of its practice soon drove away such people as Thomas Attwood. He was a Birmingham banker and veteran of the 1830-2 Reform campaign, which won the middle class the vote, but left workers out in the cold. Even the moderate wing of Chartism, William Lovett’s London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), which drew up the Charter in the first place, did represent a self-consciously independent working-class organisation. The days of the working class following radical leaders like Thomas Attwood in a bourgeois reform project were over by the mid-1830s.
Middle-class figures who were sympathetic to the purely political formulations of the Charter became alarmed at the mass activism among impoverished artisans and factory workers in industrial areas, which soon came to dominate the movement. This was no longer a polite lobbying campaign with sedate meetings and an appeal to parliament, but something which in practice was challenging the social order. Thus even the time-honoured practice of petitioning, a perfectly acceptable political form, was transformed by mass Chartist practice into a strategy of mobilisation with revolutionary potential (pp.104-5).
The fact that Chartism came close to forcing a revolutionary moment, while coming up short in the end, does not disprove the argument that it was a true proletarian movement. Rather the experiences of Chartism highlighted problems that remained in common with all subsequent periods of major working-class political mobilisation. These were the issues of divisions between reformist and revolutionary currents, debates and disagreements over strategies, and problems of class and revolutionary organisation.
The early phase of the Chartist movement culminated in 1839 with the first petition to be placed before parliament. At this stage there was no central organisation claiming to represent Chartism nationally, so the movement was organised through various local groupings, and popular newspapers. In London the ‘Moral Force’ group of William Lovett, the LWMA, lay in contrast to the much more left-wing London Democratic Association, associated with ‘Physical Force’ Chartists. At this point, there was a considerable ferment of ideas and tendencies, such that women’s suffrage was strongly advocated, for example. While the self-consciously respectable LWMA was for men only, the more militant London Democratic Association ‘welcomed’ women, such that ‘separate women’s organisations were established’ (p.108).
The sheer numbers attracted to the demands of the Charter meant that Chartism rapidly grew from being a set of abstract reforms to a confrontational demand made by thousands at mass outdoor meetings: ‘This was not cap-in-hand politics, but the politics of class war’ (p.134). There were the straightforward slogans made by some tough spoken, but not really revolutionary, sympathisers like the Methodist minister Joseph Rayner Stephens. He thundered that ‘Chartism was a bread and cheese question’, and that ‘the ownership deeds of every mill were “written in letters of blood on every brick and stone in the factory”’ (p.112). He lost his position as a result of his words.
Beyond such figures, there were more advanced conceptions, such as those of the socialist Bronterre O’Brien, at times an outright revolutionary, but capable of strange political swings. Out of the wide variety of views, there is no question that there was a general understanding of a class divide between workers, and the capitalists who exploited them. The theories of early socialists such as O’Brien, or the ‘Moral Force’ socialist Henry Hetherington, can certainly be criticised as limited or undeveloped in various aspects, but the extent of theoretical development itself should not lead the way (as it tended to in Steadman Jones’ historical analysis, for example) in defining the class consciousness among workers as a group.
Sewell is surely more sensitive to the shape of Chartist understanding in arguing that:
‘Workers knew there was an unbridgeable gulf between their interests and those of the masters, the same gulf existed in the bitter trade-union struggles and in the battle over the Poor Law … The same capitalists who robbed them of their wages now robbed them of their vote. All this added to a growing polarisation between the classes throughout this period’ (p.134).
Problems of strategy and organisation
If theory was arguably lagging behind conscious struggles in the first phase of Chartism, as is somewhat natural, the more serious problem was the lack of the kind of organisation that could both give focus to the mass struggles and bring them to victory. There were nationally recognised leaders like O’Brien, Fergus O’Connor and others, and a newspaper, The Northern Star, which rapidly became an organising tool for the Physical Force tendency. Even so, there was no overall national organisation and leadership which could bring together the Chartist activists from across the country, and give definite shape and direction to a militant or revolutionary strategy.
In these circumstances, it is remarkable, nonetheless, that the movement succeeded in creating an elected ‘National Convention’ (the phrase was a deliberate nod to the revolutionary body of the French Revolution). This met in London in 1839 as a people’s parliament to consider how the movement should respond if the Commons, as was to be expected, rejected the petition for the Charter. Sewell’s account of the debates in the Convention are fascinating in themselves, but also reveals how much this moment of working-class political challenge to the establishment contained in embryo all the dilemmas, and contrasting tendencies and strategies, that necessarily face a working class confronting the bourgeois social and political order.
The Convention failed in the end, of course, but it is worth pausing over the scale of the achievement in pulling together such an assembly. At a basic level, many of the delegates, as working men, needed funds to enable them to attend, and for their families to manage without them for the period. Nonetheless, there were immediately clear divisions at the Convention over the actions the movement should take to secure the Charter, as the ‘right wing insisted that the Convention should act strictly within the law and saw its role as merely to present the Petition to the Commons and then disband’ (p.141).
The majority in the centre, which at its widest even included Lovett on the right, felt that more should be done but lacked direction. This left it up to those on the left, who ‘wanted the Convention to become an alternative government in waiting,’ to push for a more concerted strategy. Some right-wing deputies resigned at the suggestions of physical force, and the Convention as a whole was pulled towards the left by the general working-class mood. The leadership of Bronterre O’Brien and Fergus O’Connor commanded considerable influence, but there was a more decisive left, among whom George Julian Harney is probably the best known. They:
‘took their seats on the “Mountain”, in the same fashion as the Jacobins, the Montagnards, who occupied the higher seats in the French Convention. From this standpoint, Harney and his collaborators accused the majority of the Convention of cowardice for turning their backs on … insurrectionary methods’ (p.142).
A commission was established by the Convention to look at ‘ulterior methods’ for securing the Charter. While the ideas ranged widely, including insurrection, the idea of a general strike, variously named a National Holiday or Sacred Month, also became important. However, in the end the Convention was caught in strategic indecision, recommending peaceful methods, as well as suggesting that the people should be armed and prepare for a general strike. The ambivalence of leaders such as Fergus O’Connor meant that a few half-hearted local plans for uprisings fizzled out, and the only rising that did take place, in Newport, became an isolated, rather tragic, gesture. The problem of Chartism had become clear by the end of 1839, and it was an issue of organisation and leadership.
The revolutionary moment missed
The second wave of Chartism, culminating in the petition of 1842, was twice the size of 1839, signed by the equivalent of almost 40% of the adult population (p.214). This period undoubtedly demonstrated a major advance in organisation and strategy, and arguably left a significant impact on British politics, even though it too failed to gain the Charter. The National Charter Association (NCA), routinely ignored by textbooks, was established in 1840 as a highly democratic, dues-paying membership organisation uniting Chartist groups across the country under a centralised leadership. It was open to women and men alike. It was, in effect, the first modern political party altogether, even apart from the fact that it was certainly ‘the first ever working-class party in history’ (p.199).
The levels of mass political agitation achieved through the framework of the NCA, and the Northern Star as its effective organ, laid the basis for much more concerted Chartist action in 1842. There was a widespread and mass general strike of enormous significance that became the response to parliament’s second rejection of the Charter, where in 1839 that had remained largely at the level of debate among Chartists. It is certainly true that ‘no one planned it as such, least of all the Chartist leaders’ (p.219). However, Chartism had gained not just mass support among workers, as it had in the first phase, but had struck serious roots in working-class organisation.
Local trade-union activists were also very often the local Chartist organisers. Such organic connections were surely due to the more cohesive political organisation allowed by the framework of the NCA, and meant that the strikes that began over swingeing wage cuts turned into a political strike demanding the Charter. Dismissed by most accounts as the ‘Plug Riots’ (after strikers removing the plugs from factory boilers), it was in fact:
‘not only the first general strike in Britain, a political one at that, but the first on such a scale in any country. It was a time when British workers, as a class, put a decisive stamp on the situation by bringing the main industrial areas of the country to a standstill’ (p.220).
It is important to emphasise the achievements here, but of course, the strike and the Charter were defeated, and the shortcomings of the Chartist leadership again laid bare. Fergus O’Connor dithered and failed to provide the political leadership that he was in a position to give, leaving the editor of the Northern Star, no less, to denounce the strikes. The left wing of Chartism as represented by Julian Harney was also confused by the events:
‘Instead of urging maximum support, he warned of dangers, real or imaginary. He even came out against the use of physical force, believing it to be premature and therefore doomed to fail … he vacillated and drew back’ (p.238).
This year was the real climax of Chartism in terms of the scale and possibilities of its challenge to the political order. The lesson of both its failure and success lies in the importance of political organisation, but also of developing that in the appropriate forms. What the minority of revolutionary minded Chartists lacked was an organisation of their own to orientate themselves, clarify their views, and enable them to operate independently of those elements, like O’Connor, who were always likely to draw back from the development of a revolutionary situation.
Learning from history
It is always important, nonetheless, not to abstract lessons out of context and turn them into invariable rules of revolutionary conduct. There was a third wave of Chartism, and a final petition in 1848, and once again the Chartist leadership found itself stranded with no strategy for confronting parliament’s inevitable rejection of the Charter. There was a resurgence in revolutionary mood in 1848, but again the leadership of the NCA failed to give focus or direction (p.302). Sewell seems to argue that this phase was in important respects a repeat of 1842, such that at a certain point during the rising unrest, ‘if there was a time to call a general strike, it was now’ (p.306).
This seems too simple an answer, however. It has been argued that in the aftermath of 1842, when large numbers of Chartist trade-union activists were on trial for their part in the general strike, a kind of unofficial deal was struck between the authorities and trade unions. If the trade unionists were willing to disavow their Chartism, to claim that their activity was non-political and purely economic in nature, they would be treated leniently.ii Sewell quite rightly objects to the ‘myth … propagated by Henry Pelling in his famous History of British Trade Unionism’ of the non-political nature of British trade unions (p.225), yet with all such historiographical obfuscations, it has some basis.
If the trade unions had drawn back from directly political activity after 1842 as a result of state persecution, then no Chartist leadership, however consciously revolutionary, would have had success in calling for a general strike. If the organic connections between Chartist politics and trade unionism had faltered between 1842 and 1848, then this certainly was the result of failures of political strategy and organisation in those years, but nothing would have been able to fix it all at once in the crucial months of 1848. Revolutions happen suddenly and unexpectedly, but their success is based on activities carried out in the longer term.
The closing portions of Chartist Revolution are taken up with the final chapters of Chartism after 1848, when in fact it remained an important presence in British politics. Marx and Engels were both on warm terms for long periods with the most left-wing Chartist leaders like Harney and Ernest Jones. They had high hopes for their ability to lead and transform Chartism in a more concerted revolutionary and socialist direction. These hopes were not entirely without fruit, even if both Harney and Jones disappointed in the end. The movement nonetheless left, as Sewell shows, some important continuities into the future of the workers’ movement in Britain.
The Chartist movement remains one of the most important episodes in the development of working-class politics, and not just for Britain. It is no doubt for that reason that most histories denigrate and marginalise it, attempting to deny the very possibility of a period of revolutionary class consciousness in British history. Chartist Revolution is a greatly valuable history for its thorough affirmation that Chartism was such a moment, and also for drawing out how the dilemmas, debates, successes and failures of Chartism all foreshadowed what would face working-class movements at other times in other places.
i E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London 1963), p.8.
ii See Mick Jenkins, The General Strike of 1842 (London 1980).
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Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).
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