[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Breaking the yoke

Rise from your slumber!
O! Rise from your sleep!
Millions in number,
Why crouch ye and weep?
England is waiting ye; tyranny flies;
Hark! Hark! To the summons, awake and arise!

The Northern Star, June 1843

The “Great Betrayal” of 1832, with the connivance of the middle-class radicals, created a widespread revulsion within the disenfranchised working class. Four years later, after the death of William Cobbett and Henry Hunt, new men came forward in the vital struggle for working-class political rights, above all for adult male suffrage. Henry Hetherington, John Gast, William Lovett, Julian Harney and other skilled craftsmen founded the London Working Men’s Association in June 1836. Along with the bourgeois reformer Francis Place and other Radicals, they drew up a “People’s Charter” for a new reform movement that was to change the course of history.

This was followed by another meeting, this time a mass meeting in the Strand, London, in February 1837, attended by some 4,000 supporters, which proceeded to draw up a petition based on the Charter. Similar associations sprung up throughout the country and became the foundation stones upon which the epic Chartist movement was built. This was to prove another watershed in the history of the British labour movement, the beginning of independent working class action. “Men of the East and West, men of the North and South, your success lies with yourselves, depends upon yourselves alone…” stated The London Democrat, the paper of Henry Hetherington, and organ of the Chartist Association.

The Charter contained six essential points, outlined below from a handbill issued in June 1837. While today such demands seem far from revolutionary, at the time they sent palpitations through the ruling class:

1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
2. THE BALLOT – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. NO PROPERTY QUALIFICATION for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
4. PAYMENT OF MEMBERS, thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
5. EQUAL CONSTITUENCIES, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, – instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of larger ones.
6. ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.[1]

The membership of the movement was originally made up in large measure of skilled artisans, who were by no means free from the influence of middle-class ideology. In its formative stages, middle-class radicals, who regarded Chartism as little more than a pressure group, dominated its higher levels. Despite this, the Charter constituted a programme of fundamental political change that would open a new future of working-class hope. It became a catalyst for the mass discontent that existed in society. Within a few years, the class composition had radically changed. Given the hostility of Tories and Whigs alike, the Chartist movement quickly attracted wide-scale support amongst working people. The “Cause” blazed a trail across the country as the word spread and took root in the hearts and minds of the most oppressed layers. With the break-up of the national trade unions a whole layer of activists were attracted to Chartism. Men like Thomas Hepburn, the miners’ leader, took their talents into the Chartist movement. Others, like the powerful orator, Feargus O’Connor, who became its most popular mass leader, were also drawn to its cause.

Already in the North of England, a huge movement was swelling up against the new Poor Law, against child labour and in support of new factory legislation. Giant meetings were held everywhere. For instance, a meeting in the West Riding in May 1837 was attended by 250,000 people to hear the leaders, Richard Oastler and the fiery Reverend Stephens. These figures had courageously broken from their upper-class Tory background and had come over to the standpoint of the proletariat. As such they were hated by the bourgeoisie, but worshipped by the workers. Oastler was affectionately known as “the king of the factory children”. While the Reverend Stephens proclaimed that the ownership deeds of every mill were “written in letters of blood on every brick and stone in the factory.”

The London Working Men’s Association, together with the Birmingham Political Union, the Northern Union and the London Democratic Association joined forces to rally support for a Chartist Petition. This was to be presented to Parliament by a delegate Convention, due to meet in London in early 1839. It was to bring together the seething discontent that was rife in all the industrial areas of Britain. The adoption of the term “Convention” was deliberately taken from the French Revolution and was regarded by many as a legitimate alternative parliament to the corrupt House of Commons.

“How can we emancipate ourselves from this state political bondage? Not by pandering to the fears of that timid and irresolute class of politicians who have lately appeared among the Radical ranks, not by relying on the dastardly Whigs, not by placing faith in the tyrannical Tories, but by full reliance on our own strength, upon the inherent justice of our claims”, stated a rank-and-file Chartist.

However, before the Chartist Convention took place, sharp differences emerged over how the aims of the Charter would be achieved. These divisions, essentially between the old leadership and its new-found mass base, were between the supporters of “moral force” and those of “physical force”. The former insisted that the Convention was no more than a constitutional body with the task of presenting the Charter to the Whig government by moral persuasion, whereas the “physical force” school regarded it as a rival form of government, and a dire threat to the Old Order. The Northern Chartists, based upon the downtrodden proletariat, were especially enthusiastic supporters of “physical force” Chartism.

The supporters of “moral force” tended to be more respectable, middle class and artisan in composition. They tended to regard the Chartist movement in terms of the workers and middle class against the ruling Oligarchy. In contrast, the “physical force” supporters tended to be drawn from working-class factory areas, especially in Yorkshire and Lancashire, and were prepared to overthrow the government with arms if need be. What on the surface appeared as a personal struggle between the Chartist leaders William Lovett and Feargus O’Connor was at bottom a class issue.

“If peace gives law, then I am for order; but if peace giveth not law, then I am for war to the knife”, stated O’Connor. The movement was in fact divided between a right wing (Lovett and the leaders of the London Association), a centrist wing (O’Connor), and a left wing (Julian Harney and Ernest Jones). The unity of the movement, however, was centred on the compromise formula, “peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must.”

A Convention was to be elected to present a petition to Parliament, which, if it should this fail, would be met with a general strike, lasting a month (the “sacred month”), to bring the government to its knees.

Throughout 1838 huge meetings were held throughout the country, often by torchlight, which selected delegates for the Convention. It looked as if the whole country had lined up behind the Charter. Intermingled with Chartist agitation was mass heightened opposition to the wretched New Poor Law.

The Convention eventually assembled in London in February 1839 amid wild enthusiasm, and adopted, among other things, a resolution establishing “the right of the people of this country to possess arms”, and to turn their back on “the hypocritical Whigs and the tyrannical Tories”. The Chartist Petition was launched with a series of demonstrations and rallies before the Convention moved to Birmingham. On 21 May, more than 200,000 persons took part in a monster demonstration in Glasgow, followed by mass meetings in Newcastle (80,000), Birmingham (200,000), Manchester (300,000), Bradford (100,000), Sheffield, Bristol and London. Every political union or club and all trade organisations, with their banners, took part in these huge demonstrations.

In July, an enormous national Petition containing 1,280,000 signatures was presented to Parliament. During the debate, Lord John Russell warned that the adoption of the Charter would mean the confiscation of all private property. As expected, a hostile House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Petition by 46 votes to 235 votes. On receiving the news, opinion within the Chartist Convention quickly shifted towards the supporters of “physical force”. The delegates then set a date of 12 August for a general strike to secure their demands. Consequently, an appeal was launched calling on trade unions to “co-operate as united bodies with their more distressed brethren in making a grand moral demonstration on the 12th.” However, there were major difficulties in achieving these aims. The Convention itself recognised that “desertion, absence, and arbitrary arrests” had depleted their ranks, and there were divisions over the practicality of the strike given the growing unemployment and distress at the time. In the end, these deficiencies proved insurmountable and the Convention decided unanimously to temporarily “abandon the project of a sacred month”. This retreat served to embolden the government, which swiftly stepped in and arrested 130 Chartist leaders.

The Newport Rising

Despite the repression, agitation rapidly took hold within the Chartist rank and file for the organisation not of a general strike, but of an insurrection centred in Wales and Yorkshire, the strongholds of “physical force” Chartism. Arms were acquired and secret meetings of those who had survived the Convention were held to prepare the rebellion. A Bolton magistrate reported, “…a large number of pikes was in the course of being manufactured in the towns.” From the Liverpool Assizes a witness reported:

“… they formed themselves into squads… there were three squads and about thirty or forty in a squad… the men went through what [the] witness who has been a soldier calls facings… they formed sections and marched in line across the field and wheeled to the right and marched forward and wheeled again both right and left.”[2]

The Chartist leader Peter Bussey from Bradford urged, that

“every man before him should be in possession of a musket, which was a necessary article that ought to provide part of the furniture of every man’s house. And every man ought to know well the use of it, that he may use it effectively when the time arrives that requires him to put it into operation. . .”[3]

A certain Ben Wilson obtained a gun and joined the “physical force” Chartists, while his friend, also a “physical force” man, was busy moulding bullets in his cellar.[4] Insurrection was on the order of the day. However, insurrection is an art, to quote Marx. A serious business, that should not to be trifled with. “Never play with insurrection”, wrote Lenin in 1917, some months before the successful Bolshevik insurrection.

The industrial valleys of South Wales were a hotbed of Chartism. In May 1839, the first “Rebecca Riots” broke out, where mobs of workers, with blackened faces and dressed in women’s clothes, destroyed the hated road tollgates. “Rebecca” and her daughters probably originate from a reference in Genesis 24:60, a verse which states that the seeds of Rebecca will inherit the gates of those that hate her. The destruction of tollgates, which lasted until the end of 1844, symbolised a more general revolt against the heavy burden of rents, rates and tithes that bore down on the already oppressed population. “The South Wales coalfield”, said Home Secretary Viscount Melbourne, “is the most terrifying part of the kingdom.” The feeling of revolt was everywhere. The arrest of Henry Vincent, a leading Chartist, served to galvanise the movement of discontent. Amongst the Chartists, military preparations reached a fever pitch, with drilling and the rehearsal of tactics taking place by night. Following the rejection of the Charter by Parliament, the South Wales Chartist leader John Frost, who was in contact with the “physical force” leaders, Julian Harney, Peter Bussey, and Dr. John Taylor, decided to take the initiative into his hands.

On 3 November 1839, Frost commanded three divisions, which planned to march on Newport, rescue Henry Vincent from Newport prison and seize the town. Frost organised his men, spear-headed by some 20,000 colliers, into brigades, companies and units. Armed with guns, muskets, pistols, coal mandrills and clubs, they marched on Newport. What was planned was a large-scale insurrection that was to spread throughout the land. Zephania Williams planned to set up a British Republic, while others believed in a Chartist Executive Government of England, with Frost as president. However, the insurrectionists found themselves isolated when the “physical force” Chartists in the north of the country – due to a lack of serious preparation – failed to respond. Revolts later broke out in Sheffield and Bradford, but remained isolated. The inevitable bloody encounter with government troops in the Westgate Hotel in Newport ended in a bloodbath, with 30 dead, and the arrest of the South Wales leadership. Among them, John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were tried and sentenced to death by hanging. Courageous men, they did not flinch. They were all prepared to die for the Charter. George Shell, a 19-year old who was shot dead at Westgate, wrote a note to his parents before he joined the insurrection:

“I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom, and should it please God to spare my life I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me, I shall fall in a noble cause. My tools are at Mr Cecil’s, and likewise my clothes.”

After mass protests, involving a petition signed by two million people, their sentences were commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land. Nevertheless, wholesale arrests followed which served to decapitate the Chartist movement. By the end of June 1840, at least 500 Chartists were incarcerated in prison in the most terrible conditions imaginable. Had the revolt succeeded, it is likely that it would have sparked other uprisings, as can be judged from the abortive risings in Sheffield and Bradford the following month. The unsuccessful heroic uprising in Newport served to mark the end of the first phase of Chartism.

With the eventual release from prison of Feargus O’Connor and other leaders, the agitation for the Charter was revived once more. Both Lovett and O’Brien now favoured an alliance with middle-class Free Traders who also desired a broader franchise. But O’Connor, who spoke for the mass of Chartists, forcefully opposed them and their proposed alliance. After the bitter lesson of 1832, the majority refused all co-operation with the middle-class radicals who had cheated them out of the vote.

“Our movement is a labour movement, originated in first instance by the fustian jackets, the blistered hands and the unshorn chins,” stated Feargus O’Connor. The proletarian character of the Chartists was further reinforced in 1840 with the formation of National Charter Association (NCA). At this point, the Chartist movement established itself as a working class political party – the first of its kind in history – with national rules and constitution. Prior to the formation of the National Association, Chartist bodies had been of a purely localised character. Now a national body, the NCA reached a total of 40,000 members, paying two pence a quarter, and organised in hundreds of branches all over the country.

“The agitation of Chartism,” wrote the Newcastle Journal, clearly displaying its upper class hatred for the movement, “brought to the surface of society a great deal of scum that usually putrefies in obscurity below.”[5]

Chartism, primarily a conscious class movement, drew towards itself all the separate progressive movements within the working class. According to the historian Max Beer, “the expressions Chartist, Socialist, trade unionist and working man were synonymous terms.” Chartism became closely related to the mass struggles against the New Poor Law, the Ten-Hour Bill movement, as well as to the trade unions. In contrast, the Chartists were very hostile to the Anti-Corn Law League, regarding it correctly as a false friend of the workers.

“Chartism is essentially social in nature, a class movement”, wrote Engels. “The “Six Points’ which for the radical bourgeois are the beginning and end of the matter… are for the proletarian a mere means to further ends. “Political power our means, social happiness our end,’ is now the clearly formulated war-cry of the Chartists.”

The working class certainly did not regard the Charter as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end. Although it did not contain any distinct working-class social or economic demands, it was perfectly clear what they wanted. This was ably expressed in the words of the Rev. J.R. Stephens, who was greatly admired by the workers for his caustic attacks on the factory system:

“Chartism, my friends, is no political movement where the main point is your getting the ballot. Chartism is a knife and fork question: the Charter means a good house, good food and drink, prosperity, and short working hours.”

The working class Chartists believed that the six points would give them not only political equality, but economic and social equality. Without doubt, they saw it as a key to a new egalitarian society.

“These six points, which are all limited to the reconstitution of the House of Commons, harmless as they seem, are sufficient to overthrow the whole English Constitution, Queen and Lords included”, stated Engels.[6]

Marx also emphasised that at that time:

“universal suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat form the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class… The carrying of universal suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honoured with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result here is the political supremacy of the working class.”[7]

In 1842, a new Convention met and launched a further Petition, gaining over three million signatures. When laid out end to end the Petition was said to be three miles long. This time its rejection by Parliament (by 287 votes to 49) sparked off a new movement that spilled over onto the industrial front. The specific economic demands adopted by the second Petition served to draw the trade unions closer to the cause of the Charter. Meeting after meeting resolved that “all labour should cease until the People’s Charter became the law of the land.” A storm of unrest broke out in the summer of 1842, which started among the Lancashire cotton spinners, spread to the Midlands and even to Wales and northwards into Scotland. It was called the “Plug Plot”, because in the factory areas the strikers marched from factory to factory, removing the boiler plugs in order to bring the steam engines to a standstill. The ironworkers and coal miners of Lancashire, the Potteries and Staffordshire took action. Huge demonstrations of the unemployed were organised in Glasgow. Strikes then spread to the textile workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The movement snowballed into a general strike – the first modern general strike in history – where the economic demands were entwined with support for the Charter.

The “Plug Plot”

For over 50 miles around Manchester, the second largest city after London, everything came to a complete standstill. The real initiative for linking the strikes to the Charter was largely the work of local activists. On 7 August a huge workers’ Assembly decided not to resume work until the People’s Charter was realised. A delegate meeting of Manchester trades put out the call:

“we most solemnly pledge ourselves to persevere in our exertions until we achieve the complete emancipation of our brethren of the working classes from the thraldom of monopoly and class legislation by the legal establishment of the People’s Charter. The trades of Great Britain carried the Reform Bill. The trades of Great Britain shall carry the Charter.”

Typically, the middle class Chartists were distinctly hostile to the trade unions, fearing such organisations would repel their middle and upper-class allies.

In effect, the leadership of the struggle for the Charter had fallen to the trade unions. The Chartist political leadership were completely taken by surprise by this turn of events. When the time came, they were found lacking. Even its left wing, in the person of Harney, opposed turning the 1842 general strike into an insurrection. In the end, they had no alternative but to support the strike:

“Whilst the Chartist body did not originate the present cessation from labour, the conference of delegates from various parts of England express their deep sympathy with their constituents, the working men now on strike, and that we strongly approve of the extension and continuance of the present struggle till the People’s Charter becomes a legislative enactment...”[8]

Women workers, who constituted a significant part of the workforce at this time, also played a prominent part in the movement. They turned out from the mills in their thousands to rally to the Chartist cause. The first female Charter Association was established in Birmingham in 1838, with a membership reaching 1,300. More than 100 women’s associations were established in the early years of the Chartist movement, and played their full role, along side their men folk, in drilling and military affairs. “Women can no longer remain in her domestic sphere, for her home has been made cheerless, her hearth comfortless, and her position degrading”, stated a resolution from the women Chartists of Bethnal Green.

“Women’s circle has been invaded by hired bands of police ruffians – her husband dragged from her side to the gloom of a dungeon – and her children trampled under foot – and this, for no other crime than that Labour cried for its rights, and Justice for its due.”[9]

A further call was issued to turn the “Plug Plot” general strike into a general uprising. But without clear and effective leadership the general strike, let alone an uprising, was doomed from the start. This was again a reflection of its political immaturity. The Chartist leadership proved unable to direct the spontaneous movement of the working class into conscious revolutionary channels. Trade was very bad, and with depleted resources and government repression, the hungry strikers drifted back to work. “So deep was the distress, so universal the hunger, that they had to eat the dead carcasses of cows dug up after they were buried”, stated William Beesley.[10] Then, as support for the strike began to wane, the government stepped in to crush the movement – arresting practically the entire Chartist leadership. In all, fifteen hundred arrests took place, of whom, 200 were transported to Australia and Tasmania.

The ruling class regarded the situation in the gravest terms possible. Some years later, Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, remarked:

“We had the painful and lamentable experience of 1842 – a year of the greatest distress, and now that it is passed, I may say, of the utmost danger . . . We had in this metropolis, at midnight, Chartist meetings assembled in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Immense masses of people, greatly discontented and acting in a spirit dangerous to the public peace. . . . What was the condition of Lancashire ? . . . All the machinery was stopped. . . For some time troops were continually called on, in different parts of the manufacturing districts, to maintain public tranquillity. . . For three months the anxiety which I and my colleagues experienced was greater than we ever felt before with reference to public affairs.”[11]

The defeat of the general strike – and with it the insurrection – dealt the Chartist movement a heavy blow. The failure was primarily due to the lack of clearly defined objectives. There was considerable confusion, which again reflected the immaturity of the movement as well as its leadership. According to Engels,

“The thing had begun without the working men having any distinct end in view, for which reason they were all united in the determination not to be shot at for the benefit of the Corn Law repealing bourgeoisie. For the rest, some wanted to carry the Charter, others who thought this premature wished merely to secure the wages rate of 1840. On this point the whole insurrection was wrecked. If it had been from the beginning an intentional, determined workingmen’s insurrection, it would surely have carried its point.”

Many activists, disappointed by the Charter’s failure, turned once more from politics to trade unionism. In 1842, the Miners Association of Great Britain and Ireland was founded, in which the Chartist leaders – O’Connor and Duncombe – played a prominent role. Chartism provided, through its own activities, a training-ground where most of those who were later to become miners’ leaders gained their first knowledge and experience. As a result, it became difficult to find any prominent union member who did not have, at some time or other, Chartist connections.

New union organisations sprang up in the 1840s – the Potters’ Union (1843), the Cotton Spinners Association (1843) and the National Typographical Association (1845). Also in that year a new general organisation was founded, for the first time in a decade – the National Association of United Trades (NAUT) – that became a focal point for the smaller and less well organised trades. Unfortunately, as soon as it came into existence, a deep slump provoked a series of lockouts, which depleted its funds and brought the union near to collapse. Interestingly, these difficulties faced by the union raised the need for political action. The NAUT deserves to be remembered as the first trade union body to suggest the creation of a working-class party based upon the trade unions. But it would take a further fifty years before this idea was brought fully to fruition.

A further attempt was made to revive the Chartist cause with a fresh Convention in 1845, but the movement had effectively run out of steam. A new recruit, Ernest Jones, became O’Connor’s right-hand man, and attempted to keep the organisation going. But other causes, such as the Anti-Corn Law League and the Ten Hours Committees, sapped the movement’s strength.

The Demise

The last great struggle of Chartism took place in 1848, the year of the revolutionary movements across Europe, from which it took tremendous inspiration. “We are sleeping on a volcano”, stated the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville. Within a matter of weeks the French monarchy was overthrown by insurrection and the Republic declared. One by one the monarchies of Europe were overthrown by popular insurrections and the proletarian “mob”. A revolutionary wave was sweeping throughout Europe, casting an ice-cold chill down the spine of the British bourgeoisie. It can be said that 1848 was the most revolutionary year of the nineteenth century.

Feeling revolutionary change in the air, Julian Harney wrote in his Red Republican: “Every proletarian who does not see and feel that he belongs to an enslaved and degraded class is a fool.” Ernest Jones, Chartist leader, orator and writer, wrote,

“an amalgamation of classes is impossible… these two portions of the community must be separated distinctly, decidedly and openly from each other, CLASS AGAINST CLASS. All other mode of procedure is mere moonshine.”

O’Connor even went so far as to draft a constitution of the British Republic, with himself as President! Mass Chartist meetings were being organised in Macclesfield, Leeds, Oldham, Sheffield and elsewhere. A Chartist Convention was called in April, and nearly two million signatures were collected for another petition, although a number proved bogus. Despite inadequate preparation from the Chartist leadership and government decisiveness, some 150,000 or so turned out for a demonstration in London. But the capital itself had been turned into an armed encampment. Mass arrests quickly followed, including that of Ernest Jones. A number of those arrested were to perish in the hellish conditions of prison. From that moment, the great Chartist movement entered into a terminal decline, from which it never recovered. It was, however, a truly heroic movement that changed the course of working-class history.

With the demise of Chartism and the defeat of the revolutions in Europe, capitalism began a long period of ascent. The productive forces developed at break-neck speed as markets were opened up and new areas of exploitation were discovered. Capitalism had brought into being a world market, the hallmark of “globalisation”. This development produced a prolonged period of relative social stability, where the relations between the classes were softened. Marx and Engels, who had originally hoped the German bourgeois revolution of 1848 would become a prelude to a proletarian revolution, had miscalculated the tempo of events. In hindsight, they had underestimated the future possibilities latent in capitalism, which at this time were far from exhausted. They had also overestimated the revolutionary maturity of the working class. In essence, Marx and Engels had mistaken the birth-pains of capitalism for the death-agony of capitalism. While they made a mistake, this was an error of timing and not of method.

Their whole revolutionary outlook, summed up in their Communist Manifesto, written in early 1848, was the most far-sighted of documents. Despite the sneering of their bourgeois critics, Marx and Engels saw into the future far further than any of their contemporaries. The Manifesto remains a profound piece of writing, in an amazingly small amount of words, which provides a brilliant analysis of capitalism and the historic role of the working class. “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies”, thunders the opening words of the Manifesto. It continues in its profound analysis: “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” It would be true to say that the Communist Manifesto is even more relevant today than when it first appeared in 1848. It is not an abstract commentary, but a call to action, not a textbook but a programme for the launching of a revolutionary party of the working class. “Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

The bourgeoisie was forced to grant concessions to the working class in response to the revolutionary wave in Europe. They had little choice: either grant reforms from above or be faced with possible revolutionary overthrow from below. As a consequence, the Corn Laws were repealed, the Ten Hour Bill was passed, and new factory legislation enacted. These measures were a by-product of the revolutionary struggles of the European masses, from which the British working class benefited. However, it would be wrong to reduce such events simply to foreign influence. The revolutionary fires of Chartism had also had their effect on the psychology of the ruling class.

“The working class of Great Britain for years fought ardently and even violently for the People’s Charter…” stated Engels, “it was defeated but the struggle had made such an impression upon the victorious middle class that this class, since then, was only too glad to buy prolonged armistice at the price of ever-repeated concessions to the working people.”

The British ruling class, unlike its European counterpart, managed to the escape the upheaval of revolution. The support for Chartism gradually waned. The economic revival and the greater prosperity that accompanied the boom put the last nail, at least temporarily, in the coffin of this great proletarian movement – the first in history, but certainly not the last.

“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”, remarked Trotsky in 1925.

“All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat – the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions and co-operation, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection, even the inter-relation between the proletariat and the peasantry – were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found in it their principled answer. Theoretically this answer was far from always irreproachable in its basis, the conclusions were not always fully drawn and in all the movement as a whole and its theoretical expression there was much that was immature and unfinished. Nonetheless the revolutionary slogans and methods of Chartism are even today, if critically dissected, infinitely higher than the sickly sweet eclecticism of the MacDonalds and the economic obtuseness of the Webbs. To use a hazardous comparison then, it can be said that the Chartist movement resembles a prelude which contains in an undeveloped form the musical theme of the whole opera. In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future. As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of “moral force’ aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn. Chartism did not win a victory not because its methods were incorrect but because it appeared too soon. It was only an historical anticipation… Chartism is not at all liquidated. History is liquidating Liberalism and prepares to liquidate the pseudo-Labour pacifism precisely so as to give a second birth to Chartism on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations. That is where you have the real national tradition of the British labour movement!”[12]

The defeat of Chartism, however, marked the opening up of a new “Golden Age” of British capitalism, epitomised by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The repeal of the Corn Laws ushered in the period of free trade, where laissez-faire became the dominant outlook of the British bourgeois.

“The manufacturing industry of England may be fairly computed as four times greater than that of all the other continents taken collectively, and sixteen such continents as Europe could manufacture so much cotton as England does…” stated a Conservative publicist.[13]

At this time, the enormous development of British industry was bringing about a division in outlook between the skilled and unskilled workers, and systematically cultivated by the ruling class. Whereas Chartism represented a movement of the whole class, the developments after 1850 epitomised the struggle of sectional interests – primarily the skilled workers. The objective of the trade union movement became, as Engels explained, “not to alter the system, but rather to perpetuate it by rendering it more tolerable. Rather than continue the glorious traditions of the Chartists, the “labour leaders’ preferred to deal with their aristocratic friends and be “respectable”.”


[1] Quoted in Cole and Filson, op. cit, p.352

[2] Quoted in Mark O’Brien, Perish the Privileged Orders, p.30-31, London, 1995

[3] The Early Chartists, edited by Dorothy Thompson, London, 1971, p.19

[4] Ibid, p.4

[5] Newcastle Journal, August 20, 1842

[6] Marx and Engels, op. cit, p.264

[7] New York Tribune, 25 August 1852

[8] The Northern Star, August 20, 1842

[9] Quoted by O’Brien, op. cit, p.47

[10] Quoted in Challinor and Ripley, op. cit, p.27, London 1968

[11] Quoted in Alan Hutt, This Final Crisis, p.53, London 1936

[12] Trotsky, Writings on Britain, vol.2, pp.93-94

[13] Ibid, p.7