Ch 14 The Organisation of the Working Class

CH.14-ORGANISATION OF THE WORKING CLASS

Hits: 1977

CHAPTER XIV: ORGANISATION OF THE WORKING CLASS

SECTION 2: THE CHARTISTS

THE CHARTISTS PETITIONED THE GOVERNMENT IN 1837 WITH SIX DEMANDS UNDER THE TITLE:  

“THE PEOPLE’S CHARTER”

1. EQUAL ELECTORAL DISTRICTS
2. ABOLITION OF THE PROPERTY QUALIFICATIONS FOR MPS
3. UNIVERSAL MANHOOD SUFFRAGE
4. ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS
5. VOTE BY BALLOT
6. THE PAYMENT OF MPS

A YEAR EARLIER, THE LONDON WORKING MEN’S ASSOCIATION WAS FORMED IN JUNE 1836 AS A POLITICAL AND EDUCATIONAL BODY THAT WAS INTENDED TO ATTRACT THE “INTELLIGENT AND INFLUENTIAL PORTION OF THE WORKING CLASSES.”

THE CHARTISTS STRONGHOLD WAS IN THE INDUSTRIAL NORTH, BUT ITS ORIGIN WAS AMONG THE RADICALS FROM LONDON, SUCH AS LOVETT, WHO CAME UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF PLACE.

FOR LOVETT AND FRIENDS, THE CHARTER DEMANDS WERE A MEANS TO AN END. FOR THE WORKERS, A MEANS TO END THEIR INTOLERABLE ECONOMIC GRIEVANCES.

ENGELS DECLARED THE CHARTISTS AS “AN ESSENTIALLY SOCIAL BODY, A CLASS MOVEMENT, SUFFICIENT TO OVERTHROW THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.”

“POLITICAL POWER OUR MEANS, SOCIAL HAPPINESS OUR END” BECAME THE CHARTISTS WAR CRY.

THE SIX POINTS WERE DRAFTED IN A PARLIAMENTARY BILL AS THE CHARTER FOR HISTORY.

IT WAS ENDORSED THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY. 200,000 IN GLASGOW, 300,000 IN MANCHESTER, 250,000 IN LEEDS, 80,000 IN NEWCASTLE: ALL MEETINGS WHERE THE CHARTER WAS GIVEN EMPHATIC APPROVAL.

MASS DEMONSTRATIONS WERE PLANNED, AND A GENERAL STRIKE WAS CALLED, AS THE MOVEMENT SPREAD TO AND BEYOND LONDON.

THERE WERE THREE GROUPS: THE RIGHT WING LOVETT AND LONDON FOLLOWERS; ATTWOOD, A RADICAL BANKER FROM BIRMINGHAM WHO REPRESENTED THE PROSPEROUS ARTISANS; AND THE VAST CENTRE, WHICH GROUPED AROUND THE DYNAMIC FEARGUS O’CONNOR.

O’CONNOR HAD SUPPORT FROM THE NORTH, WHICH HE NEVER LOST, DESPITE HIS MANY BLUNDERS AND WEAKNESSES.

WHILE HE CALLED ON THE WORKERS TO FIGHT FOR A BETTER LIFE, HIS CONCEPT FOR A BETTER LIFE WAS THAT OF THE INDEPENDENT PRODUCER.

AN IRISHMAN AND NEPHEW OF A LEADER OF THE 1798 REBELLION, HE BASED HIS IDEAS ON IRISH REVOLUTIONARY TRADITIONS, WHICH WERE QUITE DIFFERENT FROM THOSE OF ENGLAND AND NOT EASILY ADAPTABLE.

A STRONG, INTELLIGENT INDIVIDUALIST, HE HAD A HATRED OF THE INDUSTRIALISM THAT PREVAILED AMONG THE WORKING CLASSES, WHO WERE ONLY ONE OR TWO GENERATIONS REMOVED FROM THE LAND.

O’CONNOR OPPOSED THE NEW SOCIALISM. ALTHOUGH HE TALKED FREELY OF INSURRECTION, HE HAD LITTLE IDEA OF WHAT ITS OBJECTIVES SHOULD BE.

THERE WAS ANOTHER LEFT WING GROUP AMONG THE CHARTISTS: BRONTERRE O’BRIEN, GEORGE HARNEY AND ERNEST JONES. ALTHOUGH THEY NEVER ENJOYED THE POPULARITY OF O’CONNOR, THEY WERE DIFFERENT BECAUSE OF THEIR MUCH CLEARER CONCEPTION OF THE CLASS STRUGGLE AND THEIR SOCIALIST IDEAS.

THE CONFUSION AND WEAKNESS OF THE CHARTISTS WERE THUS APPARENT. BUT CHARTISM’S STRENGTH WAS THAT, WHILE IN EUROPE THE WORKING CLASSES WERE STILL DRAGGING AT THE TAILS OF THE INDUSTRIAL BOURGEOISIE, IN ENGLAND, THE WORKERS WERE ABLE IN 1838 TO APPEAR AS AN INDEPENDENT FORCE AND IDENTIFY THEIR PRINCIPAL ENEMY.

EVEN IN FRANCE, THIS POINT WAS NOT REACHED FOR ANOTHER TEN YEARS AND ONLY THEN AMONG THE WORKERS OF PARIS AND A FEW LARGE TOWNS.

ELECTIONS FOR THE CHARTIST LONDON CONVENTION TOOK PLACE IN OCTOBER 1838, AND, DURING THAT WINTER, SIGNATURES FOR A PETITION OF PARLIAMENT BEGAN.

HOWEVER, THE RIGHT WING WAS DISPROPORTIONATELY REPRESENTED, AND, WHEN HARNEY RAISED THE QUESTION OF WHAT SHOULD BE DONE IF THE PETITION WERE TO BE REJECTED, THE MAJORITY REFUSED TO ALLOW THIS POSSIBILITY TO BE DISCUSSED.

PROCEEDINGS DRAGGED ON, WITH QUARRELS BREAKING OUT BETWEEN RIGHT AND LEFT WING GROUPS. UP AND DOWN THE COUNTRY, SOME PREPARATION FOR AN ARMED UPRISING APPEARED.

IN THE JULY, THE GOVERNMENT CLAMPED DOWN. MEETINGS WERE FORBIDDEN, ARRESTS MADE AND A MEETING AT THE BIRMINGHAM BULL RING WAS MET WITH EXTREME BRUTALITY FROM THE POLICE. HOWEVER, THE WORKERS RALLIED AND DROVE THE POLICE OUT. IT TOOK DAYS TO RESTORE ORDER.

THERE WERE BLOODY CLASHES IN GLASGOW, NEWCASTLE, SUNDERLAND AND A NUMBER OF LANCASHIRE TOWNS.

ON JULY 12th, THE PETITION OF 1,280,000 SIGNATURES WAS PRESENTED. THE FIGURE OUTNUMBERED THE 839,000 ELECTORS OF THE TIME, BUT IT WAS REJECTED BY PARLIAMENT.

LOVETT WAS ARRESTED, AND THE CONVENTION WAS NOW FACED WITH ADMITTING DEFEAT OR MAKING A DEFINITE DECISION FOR ACTION.

A HALF HEARTED APPEAL FOR A GENERAL STRIKE WAS WITHDRAWN AFTER ORGANISATIONAL DIFFICULTIES LINKED TO MAKING THE DECISION.

MORE ARRESTS FOLLOWED, AND, ALTHOUGH A WELSH UPRISING COULD HAVE SPREAD, A GROUP OF MARCHERS IN NEWPORT, HEADED BY JOHN FROST, WERE FIRED ON. TEN WERE KILLED AND 50 INJURED, AND THE RAPID DECLINE BEGAN.

FROST WAS ARRESTED AND SENTENCED TO DEATH, BUT THE SENTENCE WAS COMMUTED LATER TO ONE OF TRANSPORTATION.

THIS GAVE THE GOVERNMENT WHAT IT WANTED. 450 MORE WERE ARRESTED, INCLUDING O’CONNOR, O’BRIEN AND OTHER LEADING FIGURES. IT SENT THE MOVEMENT UNDERGROUND. PARLIAMENT BELIEVED IT HAD BEEN DESTROYED, BUT THE REVIVAL BEGAN AS ONE BY ONE THE LEADERS WERE RELEASED.

THE NATIONAL CHARTIST ASSOCIATION WAS ILLEGALLY FORMED. BY 1842, IT HAD AN EXECUTIVE, DUES PAYING MEMBERSHIP AND 400 LOCAL SECTIONS.

IN THE MODERN SENSE, THIS WAS THE FIRST REAL POLITICAL PARTY. IT HAD A MEMBERSHIP OF 40,000. THROUGH IT, THE MOVEMENT AS A WHOLE REACHED THE HIGHEST POINT OF INFLUENCE AND ACTIVITY.

LOVETT WAS DISCREDITED AND WITHDREW, AND THE CHARTISTS OVERCAME THEIR ISOLATION FROM THE TRADES UNIONS BY BUILDING GROUPS INSIDE THEM, ALTHOUGH THIS WAS ONLY PARTIALLY SUCCESSFULLY.

A SECOND PETITION WAS MADE, BLUNT AND TO THE POINT IN ITS LANGUAGE. THE CHARTISTS’ PAPER, ‘THE NORTHERN STAR’, REACHED A CIRCULATION OF 50,000. CHARTISM SPREAD LIKE WILDFIRE.

THE SECOND PETITION WAS SIGNED BY 3,315,000 PEOPLE, WELL OVER HALF THE ADULT POPULATION, BUT IT WAS NEVERTHELESS SCORNFULLY REJECTED BY PARLIAMENT IN MAY 1842. THE CRUCIAL QUESTION OF THE NEXT STEP THEN AROSE.

THE ECONOMIC CRISIS OF 1836 HAD BROUGHT UNEMPLOYMENT TO HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS, AND WAGE REDUCTIONS FOLLOWED. STRIKES WERE ORGANISED, AND A TRADE UNION CONFERENCE SUPPORTED THE FOLLOWING MOTION:

THAT IT IS OUR SOLEMN AND CONSCIENTIOUS CONVICTION THAT ALL THE EVILS THAT AFFLICT SOCIETY AND WHICH HAVE PROSTRATED THE ENERGIES OF THE GREAT BODY OF THE PRODUCING CLASSES ARISE SOLELY FROM CLASS LEGISLATION; AND THAT THE ONLY REMEDY FOR THE PRESENT ALARMING DISTRESS AND WIDESPREAD DESTITUTION IS THE IMMEDIATE AND UNMUTILATED ADOPTION AND CARRYING INTO LAW THE DOCUMENT KNOWN AS THE PEOPLE’S CHARTER.

“THAT THIS MEETING RECOMMEND THE PEOPLE OF ALL TRADES AND CALLINGS TO FORWITH CEASE WORK UNTIL THE ABOVE DOCUMENT BECOMES THE LAW OF THE LAND.”

TAKEN BY SURPRISE, THE NATIONAL CHARTISTS’ ASSOCIATION COULD ONLY SUPPORT THE STRIKE ACTION, WHICH SPREAD SPONTANEOUSLY THROUGHOUT LANCASHIRE, YORKSHIRE AND THE MIDLANDS. LONDON AND THE SOUTH FAILED TO RESPOND.

THE TROOPS WERE SENT IN, AND 1,500 WERE ARRESTED. HUNGER DROVE OTHERS BACK TO WORK, AND, BY THE END OF THE YEAR, THE MOVEMENT HAD AGAIN COLLAPSED, WITH A REVIVAL OF TRADE BETWEEN 1843 AND 1846 COMING TO THE RESCUE OF THE AUTHORITIES.

AS CHARTISM DECLINED, O’CONNOR TURNED HIS ENERGIES TO GRANDIOSE AND CRACK-BRAINED SCHEMES. THOUSAND OF WORKERS AND SMALL TRADES INVESTED IN TWO LAND ESTATES AND LOST THEIR MONEY. HOWEVER, IT HELD THE ATTENTION OF THE MOVEMENT UNTIL A CRISIS IN 1846: THE IRISH FAMINE. IT SAW A THIRD REVIVAL AND THE ELECTION OF O’CONNOR TO PARLIAMENT AS MP FOR NOTTINGHAM IN 1847.

FURTHER EFFORTS TO REVIVE CHARTISM FAILED. IT WAS DISCOVERED THAT THE PETITION ONLY HAD 1,975,000 SIGNATURES AND OTHERS WERE FRAUDULENT.

A GREAT MEETING CALLED TO PRESENT THE PETITION RALLIED ONLY 30,000, AND O’CONNOR CALLED OFF THE MARCH TO WESTMINSTER.

DECLINE WAS INEVITABLE. O’CONNOR’S ESTATES WERE DECLARED INSOLVENT AND WOUND UP. HE BECAME INSANE, AND IN 1853 THE ASSOCIATION’S DEATH WAS RECOGNISED.

THE FAILURE OF CHARTISM WAS PARTLY DUE TO THE WEAKNESS OF ITS LEADERS AND TACTICS, BUT THE MAIN REASON WAS THE IMMATURITY OF THE STRUGGLE AND THE INABILITY OF THE WORKING CLASS TO RECOGNISE THE POWER OF THE BOURGEOISIE, WHICH WAS STILL A RISING CLASS.

IN 1848, FEW WERE AWARE THAT BRITAIN WAS ON THE VERGE OF A LONG SPELL OF TRADE EXPANSION AND PROSPERITY, STRONG ENOUGH TO TURN THE WORKERS THOUGHTS AWAY FROM REVOLUTION.

POLITICALLY, THE NEXT 20 YEARS ARE A BLANK IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORKING CLASS. MARX WROTE IN 1858 THAT THE “PROLETARIAT IS BECOMING BOURGEOIS.”

TRADE UNIONISM AND COOPERATION WERE POSITIVE FEATURES OF THESE MIDDLE YEARS.

NEXT – THE NEW MODEL

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