Basic principles of Marxism – Part Four: The Chartists

FRFI 89 September 1989

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The first mass working class party in the history of the labour movement was the National Charter Association founded in July 1840. It had 50,000 signed up members at its height and many thousands more active supporters. Chartism has always had a special place in the communist tradition. Marx and Engels saw the Chartists as a movement truly reflecting the interests of the lower strata of society, the mass of proletarians. Lenin described Chartism as ‘the first broad, truly mass and politically organised revolutionary movement’: its later defeat saw socialism in Britain pushed into the background by ‘opportunist semi bourgeois leaders of the trade unions and co-operatives’. He called Chartism ‘the last word but one before Marxism’. SUSAN DAVIDSON and DAVID REED examine the features of Chartism which make it an important historical movement relevant to us today.

In the first place Chartism not only had the backing of the main body of the working class but became a militant movement which for a period of time was powerful enough to threaten revolution. Secondly, Chartism embraced international working class solidarity which is the foundation of the communist tradition.

Chartism began as a movement against the political betrayals of the middle class by the Reform Act of 1832. The Act was directed against the political monopoly of the landed and financial aristocracy and gave representatives of the industrial bourgeoisie access to parliament. The proletariat and the petit bourgeoisie who had been the main forces in the struggle for reform were not enfranchised. They had fought hard not just for the vote but also for social and economic change. They had flocked, between 1820 and 1834 into Trade Unions – only to have them crushed by the combined action of the Whig Government, the Law Courts and the employers. They had fought hard for Sadler’s Bill, the Ten Hours Bill, which they were not to win until 1847. And they were, in 1836-7, just beginning the great fight against the introduction of the New Poor Law into the industrial areas. This law centred on the new workhouses, the ‘bastiles’ and was a punitive and vicious attack on the unemployed, the ‘reserve pool of labour’ for the capitalist. It is no surprise that the movement for parliamentary reform which began around the People’s Charter, driven on by hunger and hatred of the ruling class, soon emerged as a ‘working-men’s cause freed from all bourgeois elements’ (Engels).


The six demands of the Charter were adult male suffrage; annual general elections; payment of MPs; vote by ballot; equal electoral representation, and abolition of the property qualification.

At the Chartist Convention in February 1839 there were three factions loosely divided between the ‘moral force’ and the ‘physical force’ schools. The first, Lovett and the London Workingmen’s Association, developed from among skilled artisans, printers and other working craftsmen, and had been earlier connected with Owenism and similar petit bourgeois socialist doctrines. They argued that Chartism must remain strictly within constitutional limits.

In opposition was a radical petit bourgeois current led by Feargus O'Connor, which had a slogan ‘peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must’. Finally there was the left-wing of Chartism, which recruited from low-paid workers, including Irish labourers, and which regarded physical rebellion as the only possible way of winning the Charter. This section recognised that the implementation of the six points of the Charter would lead to the political supremacy of the working class in the conditions of the times. As Julian Harney, a leading representative of left-wing Chartism argued in the London Democrat in 1839, those who called for a National Holiday (general strike) should Parliament reject the National Petition for the Charter, should understand that they were calling for insurrection.


These different tendencies around the People’s Charter necessarily came into conflict. The decisive split came in 1842. Agitation had built up in parts of the country around the Anti-Corn Law League which demanded cheap importation of food for the cities. An alliance between the radical middle class and the working class now embraced both the League and the Charter. However, after wage cuts by the mill owners of Manchester, many of whom supported ‘cheap food’, there was a militant uprising of hungry workers. When it became clear that the working class were fighting for their own interests and would not limit their struggle to middle class interests, the alliance broke and the liberal bourgeoisie turned on the workers and took the side of the government in putting down the revolt with great brutality.

The result of this Manchester uprising and others in many northern cities was the separation of the proletariat from the bourgeoisie in the Chartist movement. This separation was formalised at the Birmingham National Convention of 1842-3 when Sturge, a representative of the liberal element proposed that the name of the Charter be omitted from the rules of the Charter Association on the grounds that it was associated with violence and insurrection. This was refused and Sturge and his supporters walked out. The ‘moral force’ school of Chartism went into decline and eventual obscurity.

After the European revolutions of 1848, Chartist agitation built up to a new pitch. While O'Connor was organising for a new petition to Parliament many Chartists, who held that petitioning was useless, argued that the right course was to organise a revolutionary outbreak. Drilling and arming went on all over the industrial areas on a much larger scale than before. Many who supported the petition were discussing what would be done when it was rejected as it certainly would be. At this point the left-wing split over a call for a National Assembly of one hundred delegates to replace the Convention and to remain in session until the Charter had become law, in other words, virtually a Provisional Government. Ernest Jones attended this new National Assembly, O’Connor and Julian Harney did not. Jones, the friend of Marx and Engels, thereby put himself at the head of revolutionary Chartism.


On 10 April the Petition was to be presented by a massive demonstration on Kennington Common in south London. The government and middle class were prepared to make this a decisive battle. The demonstration and march were declared illegal. The Duke of Wellington had overall command of defence. 170,000 volunteers from the upper and middle classes were enrolled as special constables. The centre of London was sandbagged as if for a siege. The newspapers warned everybody not to attend because there would be slaughter. In the event 100,000 gathered at Kennington Common, most having walked there since the earliest hours. O'Connor begged the crowds to disperse peacefully, and, disappointed and dispirited at not putting up a fight, they did. This abject end to the Kennington Common demonstration broke the back of the Chartist movement. The Petition was taken to Westminster ‘undangerously in a few cabs’. A debate on it was postponed for fifteen months when by a majority of 222-17 it was rejected. This was the third petition to be rejected after an estimated nine million individuals had taken part in signing the Charters. Throughout the rest of the year a large section of the Chartists continued to prepare for an armed rising. Serious outbreaks of fighting occurred in many places in the North. But the government was now confident and crushed all resistance, imprisoning and transporting hundreds of workers and Chartist leaders. Chartism was a movement in decline from this period onwards.


The internationalist sympathies of Chartism had existed from the beginning. It had links with revolutionaries from Europe, but above all with Ireland. The Second National Chartist Petition presented to Parliament in 1842 included the demand for the repeal of the Union with Ireland. Revolutionary Irish nationalists and Chartist speakers shared platforms in Britain and Ireland throughout the years of agitation. In 1846 an international society, the Fraternal Democrats, was established, which supported all important political events in other countries, the uprising in Cracow in Poland, the February revolution in Paris, the revolt of the junta in Portugal. They put out manifestos and organised demonstrations in support of these struggles. It is significant that the columns of the front page of O’Connor’s paper the Northern Star, the leading Chartist paper, were invariably devoted to foreign news.


In the third quarter of the nineteenth century, British capitalism, with the markets of the world at its command, relaxed the extreme pressure upon the workers which had marked its earlier phases. Wages rose and conditions improved especially for the skilled craftsmen who turned aside from Chartism to build up their new model Trade Union and their Co-operative Societies and found an accommodation with the ruling class. In 1850 Marx and Engels noted a growing split in the working class between ‘the labour aristocracy’ and ‘the mass of workers who live in truly proletarian conditions’. Eight years later they concluded that:

‘The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.’

The split in the working class movement is based on the material benefits of imperialist super-profits. Opportunism grows out of these conditions. Mass struggles, revolts of a hungry and persecuted class, while they are necessary preconditions for a revolutionary situation do not in themselves guarantee revolution. The transformation is only possible when such struggles are led by a revolutionary party which can turn such spontaneous struggles into politically conscious ones to overthrow the existing order. Only under such conditions can opportunism be constantly exposed and defeated. This requires the fusion of (scientific) socialism with the working class movement. But it was precisely at the time when the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels was influencing the leaders of the revolutionary wing of Chartism that the movement of the working classes was smashed, betrayed and in decline.


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