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Socialism Today 129 - June 2009

Class struggle and the early Chartist movement

In March a ‘People’s Charter for Change’ was launched, sponsored by left wing trade union leaders and others, in an attempt to emulate the original Chartist movement of the 1840s. Yet Chartism, argues ED DOVETON in a study of the early phase of the movement, was more than the petitions to parliament that popular history often presents. It was a mass movement of the working class, seeing agitation for the vote as a means to achieve political and economic change, in essence the embryonic process of creating a new political party of the working class.

THE CHARTIST MOVEMENT existed between 1837 and 1850. It was perhaps the most revolutionary and significant movement of the working class in 19th century Britain, one of those rare historical situations where the economic and political struggle of the working class came together.

The name ‘Chartists’ comes directly from the People’s Charter, a document of six demands first published in 1838. It formed a national focus point for a mass movement looking to change society in favour of the working class. The demands were: the vote for all adult males; payment for members of parliament (MPs); each constituency should have roughly the same number of voters; voting should be by secret ballot; no property qualification (the holding of property) in order to be an MP; and general elections held once a year.

History books often present the People’s Charter as the working class demanding the ‘right to vote’ – a democratic demand which we would all support. It is presented as part of a gradual development of modern democracy in Britain today. But this is a false picture, designed to brush away what was in reality a harsh class struggle. It attempts to deny that the limited democratic gains we have today have been won through the blood and tears of the working class fighting for those rights.

Also hidden in this smoothed out history is how the working class and ruling class saw the Chartist movement and its demands. For both it was a question of which class would control the state and parliament. For the working class, gaining the vote and having working-class MPs meant that they could enact laws that would favour the working class. The ruling class knew that it had to retain control because the working class was directly linking obtaining the vote to its economic struggles as a class. This is critical to understanding the role of Chartism as a working-class movement.

This was still expressed two decades later when, in 1860, the chairman of the Huddersfield Conservative Association continued to argue against reform because, "to lower the franchise without any respect to class, must inevitably be a class reform bill, because it must throw the governing power into the hands of the least educated and of course the poorer classes of the community". Consequently, he would oppose any bill "that should give to any class the exclusive power of the government of this country". He meant that it should stay in the hands of the upper and middle classes and not pass to the working class, which would be the majority. (Guardian, 7 January 1860)

The six demands

THE FIRST DEMAND of the Charter was for the vote for all males over 21, directly related to the idea that the working class, including agricultural labourers, was the majority class in society. Achieving the vote was not primarily a human rights issue, but one of gaining class power.

The second and fifth demands were designed to provide a salary for MPs and remove the property qualifications required. If we think about parliamentary salaries and allowances today, the Chartists would turn in their graves at the corruption and money grabbing. But this measure was put forward to ensure a living wage for working-class people, so they could actually become MPs. MPs did not receive any salary until 1911 and, as a consequence, only those with private incomes could afford to be MPs. The spirit of the Chartist demand lives today in the call for all MPs to receive only the average wage of a worker.

The reference to property qualifications was more direct. Borough MPs (there were also county MPs) were required to have an annual income of at least £300 derived from the ownership of land. This was designed to exclude both the working class and even small proprietors – who often identified with their working-class customers – and ensure that only the well-to-do middle class or the larger landowners could sit in parliament.

The fourth demand was for a secret ballot. Again, this was a practical proposal. At a time when voting was conducted by a show of hands, local employers and landowners could intimidate any dependent voter. Unless the workers voted for the candidate of the employer’s choice, then they could lose their employment or be thrown off the farm. Equally, the wealthy could bribe the less committed voters. The secret ballot would enable workers to vote in their own interests and undermine attempts at bribery.

The final demand was for annual parliaments. This was so that working people could hold their representatives to account. If they did not like what they were doing in parliament, they did not have to wait the seven years between elections – still five years today. This echoes the modern demand that all representatives should be subject to the right of recall, and not hold positions for years on end without any accountability.

The charter and class struggle

EVEN THOUGH FIVE of the six demands have subsequently been won, this has been through struggle by the working class, not with parliament’s willing consent. Parliament still remains an institution that is distant from the ordinary person, corrupted by professional politicians who make a career out of twisting the truth and hiding the facts. When the Chartists’ campaign developed, it was not just a set of demands upon parliament, nor was it merely about voting in the abstract. This point needs to be understood within the context of the circumstances and class struggle at that time.

Consider the role of parliamentary elections today. Why, for example, have the parliamentary elections in Venezuela over the past ten years formed an element of the class struggle in that society when, by contrast, general elections in Britain have been a passive affair? In Britain, voting is at an all-time low and all main parties are rightly seen as the same. The difference between the two lies in the changing meaning and significance of parliamentary elections. Elections can form part of the wider struggle of the working class, which is fighting for change, but can equally serve and reinforce the establishment.

We see a similar process with the demands of the Chartist movement. The political demands for democratic change were seen as a means to give the working class power, so that a working-class parliament could make economic changes in their lives: it could pass laws to tame the employers and support trade unions, improve wages and working conditions, and close down the hated workhouses. What appears to us today as mere parliamentary reforms were, in the eyes of many of the Chartists, a means of revolutionary change. That is why the Chartist movement had such strength and power, and why the ruling class feared it so much.

But the focus on elections and voting also has a negative side. We see this in the history of Chartism and in what happened subsequently, many times, in the history of the labour movement. If the emphasis for change is put entirely within a parliamentary perspective, rather than also being part of a wider movement for change, then defeat is around the corner. Any effective change in society needs to be backed up by active mobilisation of the working class, using its strength to push through change and impose its will against the resistance of the ruling class. If this is ignored or minimised, then the parliamentary system can only work to sustain and support existing society.

The beginning of the Chartist movement

AUGUST 1838 WAS the formal beginning of the Chartist movement when, for the first time, a mass meeting in Birmingham formally adopted the six points of the charter. However, the origins of the charter itself go back to 1836 when the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), adopted five of the points and subsequently prepared a petition, adding the sixth point by January 1837, with the intention of presenting this to parliament.

But working-class activists in the industrial areas of Britain did not welcome the initial publication of the charter. They were busy engaged in front-line struggles against the Poor Law Act of 1834, a draconian piece of legislation designed to force down wages by threatening incarceration into what amounted to prisons for the unemployed and the poor. They saw the charter as a diversion from these struggles.

It appeared to the activists that a petition presented to a parliament stuffed full of Liberal and Tory MPs was a waste of time. Some suspected that the idea was set up by Liberals to divert the class struggle away from direct action, to focus on a passive collection of signatures.

This attitude was based on the experience of workers, where many petitions had been presented to parliament, but were then simply ignored. As a consequence, the politically organised working class had developed a reluctance to use petitions as a political method. Added to this was the suspicious way in which the charter and the idea of a petition actually emerged. Individuals within the LWMA (a moderate and reformist body which favoured association with the Liberals) wrote the charter. When the petition first appeared, the main signatories included employers and six MPs not particularly regarded as radical. Subsequently, these individuals would not be associated with the charter as it developed as a mass movement. But their names at the beginning of the process produced suspicion, given substance when one MP, Daniel O’Connell, was quoted as saying that he signed the petition "only to divert workers away from more potentially dangerous political activities". At the same time, Francis Place, one of the LWMA members who helped draft the charter, also made it plain that he did so on condition that socialism should not be advocated.

But three factors came together which shifted this attitude and would make the charter the focus of a national campaign. Firstly, by the autumn of 1838, the direct-action campaign against the Poor Law was failing. Despite local attempts to prevent the opening of the new workhouses, and protests being held to hold up the appointment of the new Poor Law guardians, slowly and surely the new system was put into place. This set the scene for activists to look for a broader political solution, which the charter, being published only a few months before, seemed to offer.

Secondly, a proposal was put forward for a mass demonstration to present the charter’s petition to parliament. Traditionally, small delegations had presented petitions to MPs or at the door of the House of Commons. The proposal for a mass demonstration converging upon parliament turned what had traditionally been an entirely passive activity, tinged with deference to the high and mighty, into a show of force.

Thirdly, at the August 1838 mass meeting, the Birmingham Political Union (BPU) had proposed an innovation that changed the character of the charter. Although a moderate body, the BPU put forward the idea of a national convention of people’s representatives, as a means of coordinating the campaign and to discuss the strategy of presenting the petition to parliament.

It is doubtful that the moderate BPU understood the significance of its own proposals. Combined with the idea of a mass demonstration as the petition was presented, the calling of a convention of representative delegates proved a catalyst to giving a national identity to the charter campaign. The convention would almost immediately be seen as the formation of an alternative ‘people’s parliament’, and as a national leadership body of the working class.

Local struggles

THE HUGE AMOUNT of local activity is critical to understanding Chartism. While there was a focus at a national level on the political campaign, many Chartists realised that they would have to achieve the demands by force of arms, precisely because the landlords and capitalists who dominated parliament under a restricted franchise would not grant the working class the vote. The preparations on the ground were seen as a necessary part of achieving the demands. Workers in many local areas were ready to do battle. As the historian Malcolm Chase comments, referring to the meetings in 1838, including incredible mass meetings of hundreds of thousands on the moors in the day or the many more smaller meetings held in touch-light at night, "significant numbers attending were armed with stick and pikes… As autumn turned to winter, the crowds became bolder. The discharge of firearms was reported at a number of meetings".

RG Gammage, a Chartist historian who participated in the events, paints an emotional picture of the mood: "It is almost impossible to imagine the excitement caused by these manifestations… The people did not go singly to the place of meeting, but met in a body at a starting point, from whence, at a given time, they issued in huge numbers, formed into procession, traversing the principal streets, making the heavens echo with the thunder of their cheers". This was the action that could give substance to the parliamentary campaign.

The Seditious Meetings Act of 1817 circumscribed the way in which the proposed chartist convention would have to elect its delegates, and the total number of delegates allowed. This law was designed to curtail the working class from developing effective national organisations. Delegates could only be elected at a public meeting advertised in advance and there were restrictions on raising finance to organise such events.

Although the active members were able to get around some of these restrictions, the election of delegates at mass public meetings shifted the political balance away from local activists towards nationally known figures. These were men who had either independent incomes or who made a living out of public speaking. Working-class organisations were mostly organised locally in single towns or areas and there were only a handful of loosely organised regional organisations in London, Birmingham and what was known as the Great Northern Union. Absent from this picture was any national organisation. It was into this vacuum that the individuals who were able to travel from area to area, giving lecturers on working-class issues, and supporting working-class campaigns, became national figureheads. The consequence was that the national speakers from two of the larger organisations, LWMA and BPU, gained a disproportionate number of delegates, several of whom were elected for areas outside London and Birmingham.

Additionally, the delegates who would attend the convention over the next year were all elected in the early months of the formation of Chartism, before any critical issues were discussed and when the convention as a whole was untested. This would have significant consequences to the outcome of the 1838-39 campaign.

The convention

AS 1838 CAME to a close, an economic recession, which had started during the year, deepened. For many workers this would mean starvation or imprisonment in the new workhouses – nicknamed ‘the Bastilles’ after the notorious prison that was stormed at the opening of the French revolution in 1789. This was a disaster for working people and formed a backdrop to increasing working-class militancy. As 1839 opened, the Chartist movement’s focus and expectation was shifting towards the coming convention. The emphasis was on how the convention would develop a strategy to take the struggle forward in preparing for the presentation of the petition and organising a working-class response to what many expected would be its rejection by parliament.

The convention first met in London at the beginning of February 1839, with the formal title of the General Convention of the Industrious Classes. As soon as it opened, different opinions and strategies began to reveal themselves. Historically, these have been placed into two main groups: the physical-force and moral-force Chartists. In modern terms, we might think of these as the left and right wings of the movement. The physical-force Chartists embodied everyone from revolutionaries to those who sounded left but, in the end, went for compromise. The moral-force Chartists were those who, from the outset, argued for compromise and agreements with the left wing of the Liberal Party (then in government – the ‘left’ Liberals were known as radicals). But the political opinions of individual delegates to the convention were more complex than this simple division. There were also individuals who sat in the middle and would swing to support one side or another.

At the start of the convention, delegate James Cobbett, son of the Liberal reformer, William Cobbett, took the most right-wing position. He attempted to have the convention’s activities confined solely to organising the presentation of the petition. This echoed closely the views of the Liberal government, which was quite happy to merely receive, and later reject, any petition presented to it. Cobbett’s proposals were heavily defeated.

Although there was no open discussion of the use of armed force as a tactic, its presence as a back-up to the petition was implied in the debates. In particular, this came out in the discussion around the ‘national holiday’ or ‘holy month’ – what we would call a general strike – and the right for workers to arm themselves as a means of defence against attacks by the state, which was expected to use force to coerce strikers back to work.

However, the main differences between the moral-force and the physical-force Chartists centred around timing. The moral-force Chartists advocated action at some point in the future. The physical-force Chartists argued for the strike to begin immediately or soon after the convention, to coincide with parliament’s expected rejection of the petition. The arguments have a very modern ring. The moderates essentially argued that the working class was not ready. Bronterre O’Brien, in the political centre, argued that, before any action could be taken, at least two or three million signatures should be collected. On the left, Richard Marsden put forward the alternative militant argument in the Charter newspaper: "The working men of the north signed the petition for the Charter, under the impression that the men who spoke for them of the holy week were sincere. None of the industrious classes, who signed the petition in this belief, ever thought for one moment that the legislature would grant the Charter… all they had to do was to let the country know when the sacred week was to commence".

It is precisely because the class struggle unfolds in a dynamic fashion that waiting for some point in the future can give the ruling class time to organise and strike back. At the same time, the mood of expectation and struggle can die down, weakening the movement, as the need to put bread on the table impinges upon workers and their families: they cannot wait for a theoretical future, but need to act in the here and now.

The moderates at the convention were focused on the quantity of signatures on the petition. But in many areas this was not the main concern of workers; organising to oppose the government took up much of the energies of local Chartists. The petition was a useful addendum to the campaign, but not its heart. In February, attendance at hundreds of Chartist meetings around the country could be estimated in the millions on a national scale. Yet the convention delayed and set the submission of the petition nearly three months ahead, arguing that the lack of a wide national coverage of signatures was important. Delegates were sent to different parts of the country to collect them. After much debate, the presentation of the petition was postponed until 6 May.

By the second week of March, the physical-force Chartists were demanding that firm decisions be made about the actions the movement should take. This was the recognition that it was necessary to prepare to meet the likely oppressive acts of the government with organised resistance. Fergus O’Connor eloquently argued: "Peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must". This debate forced to the surface the division between the moral-force and the physical-force Chartists. As a result, some of the moderates went to the non-Chartist press to denounce ‘extremists’, while others resigned from the Chartist movement, soon aligning themselves with the Liberal Party. In the meantime, the convention adjourned without having made any clear decisions, so that delegates could return to their own areas over the Easter period.

Government reaction

AS THE DAYS rolled on towards May, tension within the Chartist movement was building, along with preparation by the government to repress the movement. The government had already passed a law banning meetings. However, meetings were still taking place. At a local level, magistrates were fearful of provoking a reaction and were cautious about making arrests. At the beginning of May, Lord Russell, then Home Secretary, reacted to this and the obvious prevarication of the convention, and issued more stringent instructions to local magistrates. They should attempt to form anti-Chartist ‘volunteer associations’ from pro-government sections of the population, to be armed as special constables. They should act upon the ruling banning meetings and start directly arresting Chartist speakers. On 7 May the arrest of the first prominent Chartist leader, Henry Vincent, took place.

Government action and the arrest of Vincent shifted the mood within the convention, which agreed to relocate to Birmingham, where Chartist forces were stronger and the government weaker. This change was important in shifting the perception of the convention and its role. Whilst in London, its focus was geared towards the petition to parliament. Moving the convention to one of the heartlands of Chartism promoted the idea of an alternative seat of government.

In the final weeks in London, the convention had also begun to draft a more general statement of its aims, the Manifesto of the General Convention of the Industrial Classes. Its language was uncompromising in exposing the class nature of the emerging conflict: "Countrymen and fellow-bondsmen! The fiat of our privileged oppressors has gone forth, that the millions must be kept in subjection! The mask of Constitutional Liberty is thrown for ever aside and the form of Despotism stands hideously before us: for let it be no longer disguised, The Government Of England Is A Despotism And Her Industrious Millions Slaves".

The next development within the convention centred around a series of planned mass meetings over the Whitsun holiday weekend. It was decided that the convention adjourn so that delegates could return to their areas and judge the mood for the next stage of the campaign. The answer was clear. Support from these meetings was massive: the Manchester meeting on 25 May was reportedly attended by 500,000 people, around 100,000 in Newcastle, with similar numbers in meetings of all the major industrial towns of Britain, and many smaller meetings elsewhere.

Backing up these mass meetings there had also been a slow but steady preparation by workers for the coming conflict with the government. Unlike today, it was still lawful for any person to hold arms in Britain, much like the current US constitution. This right was later removed by the British government through the 1903 Pistol Act and 1920 Firearms Act, the latter quickly passed during a period of working-class militancy and radicalisation. But in 1838, the purchase of firearms was readily available, and workers up and down the country had begun to accumulate arms as part of their preparation to ensure that the demands of the charter would be met. The extent and range of firearms accumulation is quite staggering: for example, with caltrops (spiked iron balls to throw under the feet of charging cavalry) being mass produced secretly at the Winlaton ironworks in Tyneside, or the caseloads of rifles purchased in Sheffield by Staffordshire Chartists. In the south west, William Potts was amongst others who was later found by the authorities with an arms cache and who had displayed in his shop window bullets with the label ‘pills for the Tories’ – he was a chemist!

Back at the convention

THE PETITION WAS ceremoniously handed to John Fielden MP on 6 May at his house in London. But this event was not part of a mass demonstration as originally intended. It also meant that it had not been presented to parliament. Rather, it was now in Fielden’s front room waiting for him to present it. This had a damping effect on the movement. If the rejection of the petition was the sign for the next stage in the campaign, the timing had passed out of the hands of the convention. Many of the delegates now seemed content merely to wait upon events.

Fielden, a radical Liberal, waited for a month after the Whitsun mass meetings before he finally presented the petition to parliament (14 June). Although the petition contained well over a million signatures (the total electorate was only 839,000) and, at that time, was the largest ever presented to parliament, when Fielden rolled out the document the Liberals and Tories greeted it with mocking laughter. Parliamentary procedure required a formal proposal to debate the petition, and this was not done until a further five weeks had passed. Another radical liberal, Thomas Attwood MP, finally proposed it on 12 July. Only at this point – as expected – the petition was summarily defeated by 235 votes to 46.

Over the two months that the petition had been languishing in the hands of the Liberal MPs, one Chartist leader after another had been arrested. The government’s strategy was calculated to weaken the movement, by picking off local leaders and convention delegates one by one in different parts of the country, while avoiding large-scale arrests which would have generated a mass response and a likely general strike. It was proving to be successful. Although the sweep of those arrested was widespread, including moderates, physical-force Chartists were the most prominent. This led to the convention being depleted of delegates and increasingly confused as to the direction it should take. It was weakened further by the return to their home towns of those delegates who could no longer afford to be absent from their work any longer.

This deteriorating situation prompted Robert Lowery, a delegate from Newcastle, to propose a resolution on 16 July for a general strike to start on 12 August. The convention was split and the resolution was passed only on the casting vote of the chair. However, within a week, O’Brien moved a resolution to change the vote, requiring that the delegates return to their areas and put the proposal of a general strike to mass meetings and only then return to Birmingham. After a heated debate, this was passed.

This left the Chartist movement in a state of confusion. The 12 August date still stood and, although it was only three weeks away, there was as yet no confirmed decision. This now awaited a report back of opinion at the mass meetings, but the picture presented to these meetings was only of the ‘possibility’ of a general strike. It was at this point that O’Connor, who was strongly associated with the physical force Chartists, used his authority through his popular paper, the Northern Star, and printed an editorial strongly arguing against the strike. This, combined with the prevarication of the rest of the leadership, blunted the response.

It was now only one week before 12 August when the convention met again to discuss the whole issue. In spite of reports from the areas of a positive response, the convention changed the proposal yet again, moving to a compromise suggestion. Areas were asked to decide individually on a one-, two- or three-day stoppage, with the expectation that different areas would do different things. The response, almost predictably, was patchy, in some areas strong, while in others workers did not want to waste their time on what seemed an empty gesture.

This ensured that the first period of the national Chartist movement whimpered to a close. The leaders had wavered and lost faith in the ability of the working class to take action, and were fearful of the government. This lack of determination and the prolonged sessions of the convention blunted the national movement. The movement dissolved into a series of sporadic outbreaks of localised conflict between the authorities and Chartists, including the significant Newport uprising. Responding spontaneously to one provocation or another, each isolated incident had no particular direction, and enabled the authorities to pick off the local and national leadership one by one.

The last session of the 1838-39 convention assembled in London on 2 September and continued until 14 September with little or no direction. The mood was downbeat and fatalistic, with discussion concentrating on the jail sentences being handed out to Chartists up and down the country, ranging from imprisonment for a few months to several years.

But this was not the end of Chartism, nor of the activity of the working class. A national movement of Chartism would rise up again, building up to a second petition and a major confrontation in 1842, including a general strike, and a third petition in 1848. Some of the lessons from 1838 to 1839 would be learnt, but also errors and mistakes would be repeated. But, as the delegates dispersed back to their areas, the first phase of Chartism as a national movement had come to an end.

Further reading on Chartism

Challinor, R (1990). A Radical Lawyer in Victorian England: WP Roberts and the struggle for workers’ rights. IB Tauris & Co.

Chase, M (2007). Chartism: A New History. Manchester University Press.

Gammage, RC (1894). History of the Chartist movement, 1837-1854. Merlin Press.

Thompson, D (1971). The Early Chartists. Macmillan.

Thompson, D (1984). The Chartists: Popular politics in the industrial revolution. Random House.


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