The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Chartism and its Main Trends. The Historical Significance of Chartism

Category: 19th century

 In 1836 a trade and industrial crisis broke out as a result of which thousands of workers became unemployed. In 1836 the Working Men’s Association was organized in London by William Lovett, a cabinet-maker from Cornwall. The latter, a typical representative of radical artisans was under the strong influence of such parliamentary radicals as Francis Place. William Lovett and his friends in the London Working Men’s Association formulated their demands in a six-point charter (hence, the name of the moxement) : universal (manhood) suffrage, annual parliaments, vote by (secret) ballot, abolition of the property qualification for MPs, payment of MPs so that low-income representatives could participate in the sessions of parliament, and equal electoral districts which meant an end to the abuses of the existing boroughs.

The demands of the Charter implied a recognition of the equality of the Irish people, which was rejected by the radical Manchester banker, Attwood. Politically the demands of the Chartists stretched back to the radical traditions of the Corresponding Societies of 1792—3, and they were proud of their heritage. In the provinces Working Men’s Associations were formed on the London model in 1837, in each case building on the remains of earlier radical reform organizations. The adherents of Chartism assumed that if Parliament accepted the Charter and introduced universal suffrage all the other economic and political issues of importance to the workers, would be solved by a parliament in which, as they thought, the workers would win a majority.

Gradually the industrial North became the focus of the whole movement with the main periodical the Northern Star published in Leeds. When the draft Charter was published in 1838 mass meetings of thousands of workers were held. The Petition for the implementation of the Charter was endorsed by one million two hundred thousand signatures.

Differences within the ranks of the Chartists came to light already during the drawing up of the Charter and especially while discussing the methods to be used to compel Parliament accept the Charter. In 1839 the National Convention of the Chartists met in Birmingham to discuss the immediate problems of the movement after the Petition was presented to Parliament.

There were three trends in the movement. Lovett and his supporters held the opinion that the Charter must be won in alliance with the radical bourgeoisie and only by peaceful methods — education, peaceful persuasion, agitation and petitions to Parliament. This was the party of ‘moral force’. Its opponents called it in derision the party of ‘rose-water’.

The party of ‘physical force’ was headed by Feargus O’Connor, an Irish lawyer and descendant of a family with revolutionary traditions. A dynamic personality, a huge man with broad shoulders and a powerful voice he was very popular among the working men. O’Connor recognized armed uprising, but only as a last resort when all other methods of struggle had failed. However, he was far from being a real socialist and at times advocated Utopian ideas, such as his scheme to buy up plots of land in order to return all the workers to the land.

In the’ course of struggle a revolutionary left wing began to evolve among the Chartists headed by O’Brien, George Harney and Ernest Jones. The three leaders had a much clearer idea of class struggle. They considered that socialism was the only option which the workers should choose and that it could be won in stubborn class struggle. However, O’Brien too, was not always consistent in pursuing his political views. At times he was under the influence of Robert Owen and the Owenites.

Meanwhile, the government encouraged by the split in the ranks of the Chartists undertook suppressive measures against the movement. Moreover, the government provoked bloody clashes with the workers in Birmingham. It rejected the Petition for the adoption of the Charter. Some 450 prominent activists of the movement, including O’Connor, Lovett, O’Brien were arrested and imprisoned. The Chartist papers were banned. The failure of the first Petition was a direct result of the lack of unity among the Chartists, their unwillingness to organize a general strike though the workers themselves were in a militant spirit to challenge the government.

In this tense period of British social history the English bourgeoisie was set on a course to divert the working class movement from direct action which threatened the interests of the ruling class to a more harmless movement which fully answered the interests of the industrial and trading bourgeoisie. This movement known as the Manchester school was demanding complete free trade and a repeal or abolition of the Corn Laws. The reformers were led in Manchester by two factory owners, Richard Cobden and John Bright, who organized the Anti-Corn Law League in 1838.

Free trade was widely propagated among the workers. The workers were persuaded to believe that the privileges won by the country through this policy would mean a radical improvement of the living standards of the working class and a solution of all their pressing problems.

The pragmatic programme of the Anti-Corn Law League which was widely advocated by the industrialists who were well organized and lavishly financed had substantial advantages over the Chartists who were in an inferior position and locked in heated discussions as to what means to use in the struggle against the ruling class and its main body — parliament.

Nevertheless the overwhelming majority of the working classes staunchly resisted the attempts of the bourgeoisie to infiltrate and divert their movement. Moreover, they gained an important victory. In 1840 the workers in Manchester formed a nation-wide political party known as the National Chartist Association. Persons who joined the Chartist organization received a membership card, paid modest dues and joined a local organization in their own district. The Association was not always consistent in its tactics for among its members there were representatives of bourgeois circles whose political views were quite contradictory. This factor could not but exercise a negative influence on the outcome of the movement. Moreover, the Association lacked the maturity to understand the objective laws of social development. Nevertheless it was set to unite the working class and gain political power for the toiling masses.

Many trade unions joined the National Chartist Association. Its membership was more than fifty thousand. In the face of mounting social tension due to a new economic crisis which hit the country in 1841 another Petition was being drawn. It contained the main demands of the first petition coupled with new items such as wage increase, shorter working hours and a repeal of the ill-famed Poor Law Act. In fact, the second Petition was far more radical. Especially important was the fact that the Petition demanded the abolition of capitalist ownership of the land and the industrial means of production.

On May 6, 1842 the new Petition was submitted to Parliament. Affixed to it were nearly three and a half million signatures, that is nearly half of the adult male population of Great Britain. It was carried in a huge chest by 20 persons and accompanied by thousands of demonstrators. The Tory government of 1842 rejected the Petition. The executive committee of the National Chartist Association proclaimed a nation-wide general strike. However, though a wave of mass strikes overwhelmed the country, the main aim was not achieved — there was no general strike and, more important, the Chartist leaders failed to make the Charter the main slogan of the day.

In 1842, the bourgeois radicals frightened by the scope of the movement broke all ties with the Chartists and it became a purely workers’ movement.

Lanchashire and its main city Manchester became the centre of the strike movement in support of the Charter. Yorkshire joined in, followed by Wales, Staffordshire and Scotland. However, at this crucial moment the leaders of Chartism were at a loss: they feared a general rebellion and these doubts were fully expressed by the Northern Star which was vastly read by the workers. Due to lack of organization London and the South failed to support the workers on strike.

It was at this moment that Peel’s Tory government hit hard at the workers. A great number of active participants of the Chartist movement were arrested. Hundreds were sentenced to transportation to the penal colonies in Australia. In this situation the National Chartist Association lost many of its members. The whole movement experienced a serious setback. William Lovett and his supporters — the well-paid workers — deserted the movement.

Scared by the scope of Chartism and understanding the necessity of social change the liberal bourgeoisie intensified its attempts to defuse social tension in the country by introducing free trade. Under such circumstances the government gave in. In 1843 import restrictions on coal and machinery were abolished. The Free trade movement culminated in 1846 when Peel, the prime minister, lent his support to a total repeal of the Corn Laws. Free trade was established which gave a powerful fillip to British industry and trade.

Despite the setback of the second Petition a group of Chartists headed by George Harney tried to steer the movement towards socialism and the international working class movement of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. In 1845 they formed the Society of Fraternal Democrats with which Marx and Engels were connected. The founders of scientific Communism supported the Fraternal Democrats, contributed to the Northern Star edited by Harney since 1842. It was in the editorial office of this periodical that Engels and Harney met. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels stayed in London to participate in a conference of progressive emigrants from the European continent and Chartists. The international ties of Chartism played an important role in stepping up working class activity in other countries. Chartist literature of this period had a strong influence on the minds of the readers. The general result, especially due to the influence exercised by Marx and Engels at this period was a heightening of class awareness, a strengthening of the conviction that the working classes as such had special and separate interests, to which other classes were hostile or indifferent. The development of this class consciousness was an essential part of the making of the English working class with its strong international ties.

In 1847 the Fraternal Democrats held a meeting in support of the revolutionary movement in Poland. The key issue was Marx’s famous speech which deeply impressed Harney.

It was under the direct influence of Marx and Engels that the Union of Communists was established which was aimed to unite the international working class movement on the principles of Marxism. Harney and Jones joined it which was an important development, for now the left-wing leaders of Chartism became members of the Union of Communists and Marx and Engels could efficiently encourage the struggle for the Charter.

A positive result of such developments was the fact that the Chartists openly supported the Irish national-liberation movement. After the death of O’Connell, who headed the ‘repealers’ in Ireland (they demanded the repeal of the Act of Union of 1801), a new revolutionary leadership evolved which maintained close contacts with the Chartists in England. This new trend in the liberation movement in Ireland was called ‘Young Ireland’ and was headed by John Mitchell. It called for national regeneration of the country in the spirit of the best democratic traditions of the past.

In 1846 England again was hit by another crisis which made thousands of workers destitute. Under such circumstances the executive committee of the National Chartist Association started a new round of agitation for the third National Petition. Most positive was the fact that the demands of the former petitions were supplemented by demands of freeing Ireland from the English yoke. Moreover, Chartist organizations were formed in the towns of Ireland and Irish clubs in English industrial centres actively participated in English working class activities. The revolutionary spirit in the country was enhanced by the revolution in France in 1848. The Chartists wholeheartedly welcomed it and, moreover, the demand to proclaim Britain a republic was included into the demands of the third Petition which was endorsed by about two million signatures.

On April 10, 1848 a great demonstration was to be held in support of the Petition. Frightened by the scope of the movement and well aware of the ensuing dangers of losing power the government mustered a formidable army and police force in  London. The troops ready for action stood in the barracks. In addition, the government distributed arms to 150,000 volunteers from bourgeois classes. In a brightly decorated carriage driven by four horses the Petition was carried to Parliament where it was rejected a third time. O’Connor, the chief organizer of the demonstration in London, failed to give the signal for resolute action at the decisive moment and he himself persuaded the workers to disperse.

After the dramatic events of 1848 Chartism gradually lost its revolutionary fervour. Militant left-wingers went on agitating and calling for action, however, the movement on the whole had spent itself. The worst consequences of the economic crisis were over and from 1852, with short intervals England enjoyed a considerable economic upsurge. This made it possible for the bourgeoisie to consolidate its grip on the masses.

The main reason for the defeat of the Chartists was the harmful influence of the supporters of peaceful evolutionary actions and conciliation with the bourgeoisie as well as the absence of a militant revolutionary party. V. I. Lenin pointed out the basis on which bourgeois influence in the working class movement developed. It was primarily associated with Britain’s vast colonies and her dominant position on the world market as a leading industrial power. Receiving enormous profits, the English bourgeoisie could bribe certain sections of the working class, the so-called labour aristocracy, and through it exercise influence on the working class movement as a whole.

Nevertheless, Chartism made a deep impression on the working class in England. For nearly twenty years after 1837, Chartism was a name to evoke the wildest hopes of the labouring classes and the worst fears of the bourgeoisie. Certainly no other movement before the rise of the modern labour movement at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries had anything like the mass following of Chartism. It was the first attempt to build an independent political party representing the interests of the labouring and unprivileged classes of the nation. Lenin wrote: ‘…England was giving the world the first broad, really mass, politically formed proletarian revolutionary movement — namely, Chartism…’*.

Chartism played a great historical role and forced the bourgeoisie to make certain concessions, reforms for the sake of avoiding new great upheavals; the ten-hour working day, the more liberal factory legislation, the Parliamentary Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 were clearly a result of this heroic effort of British working class struggle.

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