THE CHARTISTSCategory: 19th century
The stronghold of Chartism, as of Trade Unionism, lay in the industrial North, but its origin was among the Radical artisans of London. The soil of London, with the proximity of Parliament, the relative prosperity of its artisans, many of whom were employed in the luxury trades, and their habits of political discussion rather than political action, was perhaps the most favourable for the seed to take root.
The London Working-Men’s Association was formed in June 1836 as a political and educational body intended to attract the “intelligent and influential portion of the working class”. In February 1837 the Association drew up a petition to Parliament in which were embodied the six demands that afterwards became known as the People’s Charter. They were:
Equal electoral districts;
Abolition of the property qualifications for M.P.s;
Universal manhood suffrage;
Vote by ballot;
The payment of M.P.s.
These demands were accepted with enthusiasm by hundreds of thousands of industrial workers who saw in them the means to remove their intolerable economic grievances. Engels declared that the Six Points were “sufficient to overthrow the whole English Constitution, Queen and Lords included”. “Chartism,” he wrote “is of an essentially social nature, a class movement. The “Six Points” which for the Radical bourgeoisie are the end of the matter … are for the proletariat a mere means to further ends. “Political power our means, social happiness our end”, is now the clearly formulated war-cry of the Chartists.”
In the spring of 1838 the Six Points were drafted into the form of a Parliamentary Bill, and it was this draft Bill which became the actual Charter of history. It was endorsed at gigantic meetings all over the country:
200 assembled at Glasgow, 80,000 at Newcastle, 250,000 at Leeds,
300 at Manchester. At all these meetings the Charter received emphatic approval and the tactics by which it was proposed to secure its acceptance soon took shape. These were a campaign of great demonstrations, a mass petition to Parliament, a national Convention (the name was chosen deliberately for its connection with the French Revolution), and, if the petition were rejected, a political general strike.
As the movement spread beyond London its character changed and sharp divisions arose among its leaders.
The confusion and weaknesses of Chartism are apparent. Its strength was that while in Europe the working classes were still dragging at the tail of the industrial bourgeoisie, in England the workers were able by 1838 to appear as an independent force and were already realising that the industrial bourgeoisie were their principal enemy.
Elections for the first Chartist Convention took place in October 1838. During the winter the collection of signatures for the Petition was begun, and in February the Convention met in London, where the right wing was disproportionately represented. When Harney raised the question of what should be done in case the Petition were rejected the majority refused to allow this possibility to be discussed. The proceedings dragged on for some months, marked by repeated quarrels between right and left wing groups, while up and down the country some preparations for an armed rising appeared to have been made. In July the Government struck. Meetings were forbidden, many arrests were made, and on July 4th a body of police, specially imported from London, attacked a meeting at the Bull Ring, Birmingham, with exceptional brutality. The workers rallied and drove the police out of the Bull Ring and it was not till some days later that order was restored in the town. The news of the Birmingham outrage spread rapidly and there were bloody clashes in Glasgow, Newcastle, Sunderland and a number of Lancashire towns.
On July 12th the Petition, which had 1,280,000 signatures, was rejected. The Convention was now faced with the alternatives of admitting defeat or coming to a definite decision for action. A half-hearted attempt was made to call a general strike, but when it was found that there was no organisation for making the decision effective, the strike appeals were withdrawn. The Convention dissolved on September 14th.
More arrests followed quickly and a decline began.
In a few months about 450 arrests were made, the victims including O’Connor, O’Brien and almost all the outstanding figures. During the first half of 1840 the movement was forced underground and appeared to have been beheaded and destroyed. As the leaders one by one came out of gaol a slow revival began. In this revival the formation of the National Chartist Association in July was the most important event. At this time any national party was illegal, and the movement had consisted only of local organisations with no real central leadership or co-ordinating force. The N.C.A., in spite of its illegality, was thus the first real political party in the modern sense, a party with an elected executive, dues-paying membership and about 400 local sections. By 1842 it had a membership of 40,000 and through it the movement as a whole reached its highest point of influence and activity. The right wing had been discredited by the failure of the first Convention.
The N.C.A. went far to remove one of the main weaknesses of Chartism, and efforts were now made to overcome another, the isolation of the Chartists from the Trade Unions, by building up Chartist groups inside them. This attempt was only partially successful.
O’Connor was released in August 1841, and preparations were made for a second Petition. This was a very different document from the first. The second bluntly contrasted the luxury of the rich with the poverty of the masses and included demands for higher wages, shorter hours and factory legislation.
The economic crisis, eased somewhat after the bad year of 1838, suddenly intensified, bringing unemployment to hundreds of thousands and general wage reductions to the working population. Chartism spread like wildfire and the second Petition was signed by no fewer than 3,315,000 people-well over half the adult male population of Great Britain. Nevertheless it was scornfully rejected by Parliament in May 1842.
Once more the crucial question of the next step arose.
The Association was just as hesitant as the Convention had been, but the decision was taken out of their hands by the spontaneous action of the workers.
Taken by surprise the Association could only recognise the strike, which spread swiftly all over Lancashire, Yorkshire, and the Midlands. Troops were sent into the strike areas and by September a combination of repression and hunger had forced the strikers back to work. There were over 1,500 arrests, and by the end of the year the movement had once again dwindled to small proportions.
The crisis of 1846, accompanied by the great famine in Ireland, brought Chartism into its third period of activity. The first sign of this revival was the election of O’Connor as M.P. for Nottingham in 1847.
On the surface this revival had all the vitality of the agitations of 1839 and 1842. There were the same demonstrations, the same enthusiasm and the same terrible background of misery and starvation. But in reality there was a profound difference. The employed had not fully recovered from the defeat of 1842 and had meanwhile been pacified by the passing of the Ten Hour Day Act. The movement was therefore confined mainly to the unemployed. In Glasgow there were severe bread riots in April 1848 and many people were killed and wounded. The Government made the most ostentatious military preparations and raised a large number of special constables from the upper and middle classes.
The mechanical adoption of the old, worn-out tactics of Petition and Convention was in itself a confession of weakness.
The Petition, when presented, was found to have only 1,975,000 signatures against the five million O’Connor had claimed. The great meeting which was to have accompanied the presentation of the Petition on April 10th was dwarfed by the forces which the Government had called out. Some 30,000 people assembled at Kennington Common and O’Connor decided to abandon his plans for a march to Westminster. Chartist agitation continued strong during the summer of 1848 but was broken by systematic police attacks on its meetings and the arrest of its most active leaders.
Hereafter the story is one of unbroken decline, in spite of the adoption of a new programme with marked socialist features.
After 1853 the Association’s death was formally recognised by a decision to discontinue the election of an Executive Committee. The National Charter Association lingered on till about 1858.
The failure of Chartism was partly a result of the weaknesses of its leadership and tactics. But these weaknesses were themselves only a reflection of the newness and immaturity of the working class. Politically, the twenty years after 1848 afford a striking contrast to the Chartist decade. The attempt to create a great, independent party of the working class was not repeated: political activity became more localised, or was confined to some immediate practical issue, but it never ceased to exist.
From: A People’s History of England by A. L. Morton