“Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must!”
George Orwell observed of Charles Dickens that ‘the very people he attacked [in his works] have swallowed him so completely that he has become a national institution himself.’ In much the same way, the depiction of the quaintly attired Chartists in Danny Boyle’s visually resplendent, £27 million, 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony in London was perhaps the clearest indicator of the Chartists’ acceptance into the British Establishment. Boyle offered us a saccharine portrayal of Britain’s radical past, in a ceremony presided over by the very same institutions which they turbulently challenged. In two hundred years, it is hard to imagine the IRA occupying the same position, yet the parallels are not too dissimilar. To reclaim Chartism as part of the political mainstream in this way is to diminish the potency of Chartism as a revolutionary force, which aimed to turn its world upside down. Chartism was a radical, dynamic and fiercely subversive movement. To relegate it to a benign sphere of historical tweedom is erroneous and misguided, and all the more so when the Chartists can offer vital lessons in resistance against a contemporary political assault on the working classes.
Based on the Six Points of Charter drawn up in 1838 by the London Working Men’s Association, the Chartists aimed to secure universal suffrage for men (but not women) over twenty one; a secret ballot; payment for MPs and the removal of their property qualifications; constituencies of equal size and annual elections for parliament. Chartism peaked between 1838 and 1848, but it had its roots in an earlier failure to provide parliamentary representation for the working classes with the 1832 Great Reform Act. Millions of people signed the three Chartist petitions of 1839 to 1848, although none of the documents actually survive. While building upon the intellectual roots of pre-existing radical political ideas, embodied by such individuals as Thomas Paine, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and Major Cartwright et al., Chartist leaders still broke poignantly with this intellectual framework in appealing to ‘workers’ as opposed to ‘citizens’. Chartism was thus the first class-conscious, independent working class movement to emerge from the early years of the Industrial Revolution.
This emergence occurred within a context of increased social and political polarisation. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had led to the implementation of workhouses and a harsher system of poor relief. Widely perceived as a brutal assault on the basic freedoms of the poor, the Act underlined the irreconcilable rift, the ultimate conflict of interest between Parliament and the working people. Chartism spoke on behalf of a diverse and sprawling working class population, united by a broad ideology seeking remedy to their social and economic problems by trying to participate in parliamentary politics. While Chartism had explicitly political aims, then, these aims were largely based on economic concerns specific to the working classes; and parliamentary inclusion was perceived as the best means of remedying to the misery and degradation of industrial working conditions. The Chartists did achieve a modicum of success here. Feargus O’Connor, who co-published the Chartist Northern Star newspaper, was elected as a Chartist MP in Nottingham in 1847.
The Northern Star was perhaps the most important means by which the Chartist movement acquired a national focus, fostering the integration of disparate pockets of local radical agitation into a national Chartist movement. The Star embodied this national perspective, and it gave local and regional radicalism a national coverage. The success generated by the Chartists in their assault on the parliamentary ruling classes was almost unprecedented, as manifested in 1842, ‘the year in which more energy was hurled against the authorities than in any other of the nineteenth century. More people were arrested and sentenced for offences concerned with speaking, agitating, rioting and demonstrating than in any other year, and more people were out in the streets during August 1842 than at any other time… It was the nearest thing to a general strike that the century saw.’1
The Chartists were intensely proud of their working class status. At its core, Chartism can be said to have represented the political expression of working class culture. This culture was syncretic: it suffused all aspects of Chartist ideology. Dorothy Thompson observes, ‘in the towns and villages of Britain thousands of anonymous men and women organised the Chartist movement, using traditional forms of processions, carnivals, theatrical performances, camp meetings, sermons and services to put the message across of the six points. Flags, banners, caps of liberty, scarves, sashes and rosettes appeared on public occasions. Slogans from the Bible, from literature and from earlier radical movements decorated the banners and placards they carried. Hymns and songs were written and sung, poems were declaimed. Every aspect of the religious and cultural life of the communities was brought into service to press home the Chartist message.’2 It might be added that the Chartist message did not simply reflect the outward religious and cultural practices of these communities; rather, it intertwined most fundamentally with the working class life that it sought to safeguard.
This idea extended from meeting houses to family firesides. In his speech to Glasgow Chartists in 1839, Mr. Macfarlane declared that ‘Toryism just means ignorant children in rags, a drunken husband, and an unhappy wife. Chartism is to have a happy home, and smiling, intelligent, and happy families.’3 The concept of domesticity was hence central to the rhetoric of early Chartists, and expressed itself through vivid, evocative imagery, rousing songs, music, and processions. Anna Clark argues that Chartist domesticity ‘aimed both to heal the sexual antagonism within working-class culture and to defend working-class morality in the larger political context.’ With working class family life threatened by the brutality and iniquity of factory working conditions, domesticity became a tool by which Chartists could dignify working class family culture, in addition to constructing a role for women within the movement. If Chartists affirmed sexual distinctions, it owed to political expedience in the face of middle class opposition. The Chartists may have eventually sacrificed a militantly political role for women, but women’s identity and status within working class culture was far from meaningless.
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“The war of classes, sir, is now no longer a mere war of politics, but a war between capital and labour.”4
As Chartist leader George Julian Harney declared, the change in Chartist ideology and tactics from 1848 to 1850 was symbolised by the change in the Chartist flag colour. When Ernest Jones was imprisoned for openly advocating a physical force approach, the flag became green after it had been red. At this point, Chartism had undoubtedly diminished, both in terms of membership and ideological motivation. Harney and Jones were instrumental in forging a new identity for Chartism, and in steering it towards a more cogently socialist path. In November 1850 Harney published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto in the new socialist-leaning weekly, The Red Republican. In admittedly not the most fitting of translations (but one of the most entertaining), it opens: “A frightful hobgoblin stalks throughout Europe….”5 This formed part of a drive to assimilate Chartism into an Internationalist movement, aiming to reinforce the Chartists’ common cause with European socialists. Jones was indeed the first person, at least in England, to accept Marx’s theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a working basis for organisation.6
If Chartism was occasionally fraught with internal ideological contradictions and inconsistencies, it is only to be expected from a movement which spoke on behalf of a national working class culture, and expressed the concerns and outlook of a less than homogenous proletariat. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Chartism ended in total failure. All except one of the six points of the Charter is now law—the one exception being the call for annual parliaments. Chartism also helped create a long-term political culture in which later left-wing ideas flourished. It formed a vital component in the transition between old traditions of political radicalism and the development of recognisably socialist theory. And indeed, in its dying years, Chartism actively subscribed to a premature socialist doctrine. As a lesson in resistance, Chartism has much to offer. The dynamism and fierce vitality it embodied at a time when the working classes endured brutal industrial privations and political exclusion defines the Chartists as a revolutionary workers’ force in British history. Set in the post-imperial hangover of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, the Chartists have never seemed more out of place. •
Olivia Arigho Stiles studies History at Somerville College and is part of the Organising Committee for the Oxford Radical Forum.
1 Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists, pp102.
2 Ibid, pp. 118–19.
3 Scottish Patriot (December 14, 1839) in Anna Clark, ‘The Rhetoric of Chartist Domesticity: Gender, Language, and Class in the 1830s and 1840s,’ Journal of British Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Jan., 1992), pp.62.
4 Peter Cadogan, Harney and Engels, International Review of Social History, Volume 10, Issue 01, April 1965, pp 72.
5 Ibid., pp73.
6 Ibid., p79.