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‘Tyrants, believe and tremble’ – the Chartist movement in Britain

The example of Chartism proves there is a revolutionary tradition in the British working class writes Stuart King

‘The era of Chartism is immortal in that over the course of a decade it gives us in condensed and diagrammatic form the whole gamut of proletarian struggle – from petitions in parliament to armed insurrection. All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat … were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement, but found in it their principled answer.’ (Trotsky 1925)

Chartism burst into British politics one hundred and fifty years ago in May 1838. Described by Engels as ‘The first working men’s party the world ever produced’, it shook British capitalism to its foundations, mobilising hundreds of thousands of working men and women in a fight to transform society. Its spectacular failure during the revolutionary upsurge of 1848 marked its end as a mass force.

The ensuing decades saw the accumulation of all the religious, pacifist and reformist baggage which clutters the ideas of the British working class movement to this day. But the example of Chartism disproves those who say that ‘revolution is not in our tradition’. One hundred and fifty years later the Labour left’s policies are still dwarfed by the words and deeds of the Chartist workers.

Class rule in Britain was far from secure in the 1830s; it had only just survived a major political crisis. A powerful alliance of the new factory owners, the urban middle class and the factory workers had forced the landed aristocracy to grant the Reform Act of 1832. This gave the vote to the employers and middle class.

The Reform Act split in two the mass movement that had won it. As the ‘middle class’ scrambled to secure for themselves parliamentary office and influence they were only too happy to ditch the mass of workers whose ‘riotous assemblies’ had frightened the landlords into submission.

Chartism was born out of this betrayal. The first act of the ‘reformed’ parliament was to crush the emerging mass trade union movement – the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. In 1834 Lord Grey’s Whig (forerunners of today’s Liberal Party) government set up the notorious ‘workhouse system’ of forced labour for poor relief. Little wonder then that this mass of impoverished ‘factory hands’ threw itself behind the campaign of ‘The Charter’.

The Charter was a programme of democratic demands drawn up by the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA) in 1838. It called for votes for all adult men, the secret ballot, annual elections, equal electoral districts, the payment of MPs and the abolition of the ‘property qualification’ which barred workers from standing for parliament. But its demands were not an end in themselves. They were seen by the mass of workers as a means of abolishing the evils that flourished in early capitalism – poverty, starvation, child labour, the 16 or even 18 hour working day. The workers’ failure to improve their situation through industrial conflict repeatedly focused their attention on political democracy as the way of ending exploitation.

The LWMA was a ‘moderate’ group, largely made up of skilled artisans and craftsmen. Its leaders came to be known as the ‘moral force’ wing of Chartism.

William Lovett, a cabinet maker and LWMA leader, for example, detested violence, even the just violence of the oppressed. So he put his faith in the power of moral persuasion as the means of giving workers the vote. His moderation in the end did not save him from the oppressors gaols.

Lovett drew up the Charter, along with Francis Place, specifically as a bill for Radical MPs to support in parliament. Such was their concern to win support from the ‘Radicals’ that Lovett and Place refused to criticise them, even when they condemned trade union action in parliament.

In opposition to the LWMA’s ‘moderation’ a different strand of Chartism emerged. Led by George Julian Harney, Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor, the ‘physical force’ wing of Chartism attempted to combine the radical Jacobinism of the French Revolution with a social programme for the working class. They were not socialists in the modern sense, but their demands rallied thousands of workers to the strategy of insurrection as the means of gaining the Charter.

Their great political strength lay in the recognition that only the workers, organised independently of the bosses, could win the Charter.

The charter was launched as a huge petition at a series of mass meetings in 1838. At the first meeting in Glasgow there were 150,000. Four months later, a quarter of a million gathered on Kersal Moor outside Manchester to vote for the petition and elect delegates to a national Chartist convention.

The mood of these meetings was reflected in the banners and slogans carried by the workers: ‘For children and wife we’ll war to the knife’, ‘Bread and Revolution’ and ‘Tyrants, believe and tremble!’. Tremble they did. In addition to the meetings, widespread drilling of armed detachments and sporadic guerrilla attacks on the army took place. And the ruling class had little of the repressive national organisations of the modern state.

In this atmosphere the General Convention of Industrious Classes – the Chartist ‘parliament’ – met in London in February 1839. It was immediately faced with the question: what to do when Parliament threw out the 1,200,000 signature petition? In the end the ‘moral force’ wing carried the day; deciding on a whole series of measures including striking for one month, withdrawing money from the banks, maintaining arms, and abstaining from alcohol! Harney protested:

“The only one of the plans proposed here, which appears to me feasible is the “National Holiday” and this I am prepared to show means nothing less than insurrection.”

But although the physical forceists conducted widespread propaganda for an insurrectionary general strike, they had no organisation to achieve it.

When the Convention re-assembled in Birmingham the police attacked a mass meeting in the Bull Ring, provoking several days of pitched battles. When parliament rejected the petition by 235 to 46, the Chartists made a half-hearted attempt to call a general strike. It had only patchy support because workers could see it was only a gesture.

Mass repression followed. Arrests and imprisonment left over 500 Chartists in gaol by spring 1840, including O’Connor, Lovett, O’Brien and many other leaders. Meanwhile local Chartist groups launched armed risings in Bradford and Sheffield. In Newport soldiers fired on a 20,000 strong march of miners and iron workers killing at least ten Chartists and provoking the legendary Newport Uprising.

With the temporary triumph of reaction, workers turned again to the struggle over wages and conditions. In 1842 a dramatic recession produced wage cuts and mass redundancies in the mining and textile sectors. By the summer mass starvation and homelessness cast a terrible shadow over the workers’ districts. Starting with a miners’ strike in Staffordshire, a rolling general strike began which engulfed Lancashire and Yorkshire. Day after day workers marched through the industrial towns, ‘turning out’ the workers mill by mill, confronting the army and organising daily mass meetings of up to 20,000 people in every town.

Although the slogan of the strike was for ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’, at every mass meeting the demand for the Charter found immediate and spontaneous support. John Muirhouse, a Chartist worker, addressing one of the first strike meetings in Hyde, spelt out the connection between the wages struggle and politics:

‘My friends and fellow workmen I must inform you that we are not met here for a wages question or a religious question, we are met here for a national question … we will proceed from factory to factory and all the hands that will not willingly come out we will turn them out, until the Charter which is the only guarantee you have for your wages, becomes the law of the land.’

A series of’ trades conferences’ culminated in a Grand Delegate Conference in Manchester on 15 August. Meeting for two days, the conference of strike delegates elected an executive and sent out delegates to every region to spread the general strike.

The National Charter Association, meeting immediately after, also issued the call for a general strike. The conflict spread to London, where large crowds surrounded the railway stations as army regiments embarked for the north to put down the strike.

At its height the strike involved half a million workers. No longer able to castigate them as ‘riotous mobs’ the bosses press had to report that the strike committees were effectively running society: issuing vouchers to shopkeepers, considering requests for exemption from bosses, organising food or welfare.

The strike was eventually crushed by military force and starvation; not inevitably, but because the Chartist leaders had no policy of armed insurrection and could not decide to link the Charter unconditionally to the economic demands and violent actions of the workers.

After a four year period of retreat a renewed economic recession and the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe brought Chartism alive again as a mass force. A third petition was drawn up in 1848 and the Chartist Convention decided on a mass meeting at Kennington Common in London. From there it was planned to march to Westminster and present the petition. Despite the intentions of the leadership, both government and workers interpreted this as a call for insurrection. Estimates vary from twenty thousand to half a million for the crowd that gathered on 10 April 1848.

It found every bridge across the Thames barred with police and cannon, every major building sandbagged and occupied by troops, but O’Connor appeared and pacified the crowd. At the crucial moment once again, even the physical force leaders were lost for a strategy to turn the insurrectionary mood of the workers into power.

Chartism represented a turning point in the history of the British class struggle. It was a struggle fought with ideas inherited from the French bourgeois revolution, but fought by workers, and with the methods of working class struggle – the mass strike, the flying picket, strike committees, workers’ councils and the workers’ militia. At its most radical, the programme of the physical force Chartists was a fusion of democratic and ‘social’ demands. Political democracy was to be the means to ending economic slavery. But in so far as it had a social goal, Chartism envisaged only the schemas of the utopian socialists.

Ruling class and labourite historians have worked for years to diminish the significance of Chartism, to render it a safe subject for the school syllabus, a ‘tragic failure’ or a ‘hopeless dream’.

For us, as for Trotsky, the history of Chartism has a different meaning:

“The British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future. As the Chartists tossed aside the sentimental preachers of moral force and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution, so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists in its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn.”

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