Eleanor Marx Aveling 1895
Strictly speaking there is no English working-class movement, in the modern sense of these words, until the eighteenth century. Up to this period the mode of production, although there were plenty of proletarians, had not yet produced a proletarian class, and therefore a proletarian movement. But in England, as elsewhere, although the general conditions all through the Middle Ages differed materially from those obtaining not only on the Continent but in Scotland and Ireland, if there was no large class of proletarians there were, even in that “golden age” about which our romancist historians, and historical romancists rave, an enormous number of men and women who were very literally paupers, i.e., “poor” and in direst want. When the old conditions of serfdom began to break up; when the handicrafts were no longer carried on by isolated individuals in isolated villages; when trade and commerce began to develop, and to grow so enormously as they did in England, then the number of these proletarians, of these men and women who for one reason or another had either dropped out of, or had never been able to enter, the narrow and clearly defined ranks of feudal society, grew also. There were, even in the earliest feudal times, a far larger number of these un-classed, non-gildated workers, men and women, than most historians seem willing to recognise. They were recruited chiefly, of course, from those trades that were easily learnt, or that, for one reason or another, were looked down upon by the others, either from their peculiar nature, or from the fact that, as in the case of the weavers, they were in England of “foreign” origin, and largely made up of “aliens.” These non-gildated workers included women as well as men, for in these early times the women in England were gild-members like their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Out of some 500 gilds in the 12th-15th centuries scarcely five did not contain women members, just as in a later century Nicander Nucius, a Greek follower of the Ambassador from Charles V. to England (1545-6) noted with astonishment that in London the shops and “mercantile concerns” generally, were carried on largely by women. That with a large and constantly growing class of non-gildated workers there should have been much poverty and misery; that at times this poverty and misery should have become unendurable, is to be expected. And that revolts caused by this misery should in form and feature bear a striking resemblance to our own movement, that those who voiced the wrongs and sorrows of their fellows should occasionally speak in tones so like our own that our words seem but echoes of theirs, is equally to be expected. But just as the existence of poverty does not of itself constitute a proletarian class, just as the denunciation of the rich does not constitute Socialism, just as our modern trades unions are by no means identical with the feudal gilds, so these revolts, these risings, these cries of rage and despair do not constitute a working-class movement. But they were in a sense the beginning of our movement, an ancestral form of it, and therefore of interest to every student of working-class history. There are those who are fond of pointing out the very advantageous position — as compared with our day — of the old apprentice, journeyman, and master respectively. But they do not mention that when once a gild had grown strong enough to hold its own every effort was made to keep down its numbers. Thus in the fourteenth century any one receiving the freedom of a city had to swear he would take no apprentice “but if he were free-born, no bondwoman son.” The apprentice must also be legitimate. The “Constitutions of Masonry” (thirteenth century), declares a “prentys” must be of “gentyl kynde,” and that the master must not make any “bondeman” a “prentys” even for a consideration (“he for no covetyse do him take”). But while such rules could be and were enforced in certain trades, there were others where they were always more or less a dead letter. And first and foremost among these was the trade of the weaver. It must be remembered that very early in the feudal times the wool trade became the great trade of England, and while this mostly consisted in the exporting of wool it gave also an impetus to the weaving trade in England. Originally no doubt the Anglo-Saxons were familiar with this “mystery” (i.e., mestier, a trade), but during the early Norman period (1066-1100) the art was more or less completely forgotten. Then Henry I., the son of the Norman Conquerer, brought over a small colony of Flemish weavers — and brought them over, it would seem for reasons other than their skill as workers. They also had a reputation as fighters, and it was as much for this as for their craft that Henry settled the colony in Pembroke where these Flemish artisans did their weaving between wiles waging war against the Welsh, then a very serious danger to the King. Some of these imported weavers, however, together with others who had come to England in consequence of the terrible flood that had devastated their own low-lying land, had settled down in London and other towns. It is probably about this time that their first gild-charter was granted them, a charter which was renewed by the King’s grandson, Henry II., between 1162 and 1171. Now it is certain that a trade thus started by “alien” workmen, at a period when even a man or woman not belonging to a particular gild, city or borough, was looked upon as a “foreigner” by the rest, and hated and distrusted accordingly, would be despised by the native artisans. Moreover, such a trade would of necessity count among its members a large number of non-gildated workers. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the language used by Henry II. in granting them their charter differed considerably from that used in other charters of the same kind; while the special proviso imposing a penalty of £10 upon any one who should do them “injury or contumely” points to the low esteem in which even the gildated weavers were held. Indeed one of our highest authorities on this subject, Riley, declares that during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the weavers in England “held a status little, if at all, superior to that of the not law-worthy [i.e. one denied the privileges of a free subject in Courts of justice] serf or theow of Anglo-Saxon times.” Recruited from the revolutionary class of Flemish, Dutch, and French weavers, placed in this exceptional position, we might expect to find, and do find, that in England as on the Continent the weavers play a most revolutionary part in the history of the English Working-class Movement. It is against the weavers’ gilds chiefly, almost solely indeed, that the merchant gilds and town corporations made prohibitive laws — for there was never in England that great struggle between the plebeian and patrician gilds which plays so very important a part in the Continental countries. It is from amongst the weavers that the revolutionary army in England from this early time up to the eighteenth, aye, even to the nineteenth century, was largely recruited. It is from the weavers that some of the earliest and bitterest cries go up as to the miserable condition of the poor. So early as 1436 they complained of truck, sweating, and long hours in their trade. And almost the first genuine strikes recorded are those of weavers.
Meantime, between the eleventh and the thirteenth centuries in England an immense change had been taking place. The wool trade, which was in time to transform the whole face of the land, had grown so enormously that in the thirteenth century it represented over half the trade of the country — a proportion that was long maintained, and that even increased. With this huge wool trade began that turning of the cultivated land into sheep-walks, that divorce of the people from the soil which in a few centuries (see “Capital,” ch. c.xvii. p.740) had become complete; that creation of an immense class of landless “free labourers,” a class constantly growing, while the area of employment diminished, until it had became a menace to the ruling class, and provoked the blood-thirsty legislation of the Tudors (especially of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth). But the movement that culminated in the Peasant Revolt (1381) began, as under the existing economic and social conditions it was bound to begin, as a religious movement. It bears a curious resemblance to the German “Reformation” movement of the sixteenth century. Its Luther was John Wyclif; its Anabaptists the Communist section of the Lollards. As Luther detested the Anabaptists, so Wyclif detested the very revolutionary followers of John Ball, “the mad priest of Kent,” and Litster. And, as in the case of the Anabaptists, a large number of different sects were all comprehended in the one term “Lollards.” This name originally given in derision and first applied by the orthodox Churchmen to the Wyclifites, meant “an idler,” or an “idle babbler.” It is needless to say that the Lollards were subjected to a pitiless persecution; but their teaching spread, and the words of Ball were repeated throughout the length and breadth of the land. “Good people,” said he, “things will never go well in England so long as goods be not in common, and so long as there be villains and gentlemen. By what right are they whom we call lords greater than we? .... They are clothed in velvet and warm in their furs and ermines, while we are covered with rags. They have wines and spices and fair bread and we oat-cake and straw, and water to drink. They have leisure and fine houses; we have pain and labour, the rain and wind in the fields. And yet it is of us and of our toil that these men hold their state.” And wherever the “common people” met they sang the rhyme, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman"?
The revolt spread. The counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridge, and Hertfordshire rose in arms; it spread from Sussex and Surrey to Hampshire and Somerset; but its greatest strength lay in Kent, and presently a large army of peasants, reinforced practically by the whole population, began to march upon London. Then, partly by fraud and treachery, partly by force, the rising was suppressed, its leaders executed, and thousands, especially in the two counties of Kent and Essex, massacred. But if communistic and heretic Lollardry was for a time got under, the movement itself was not killed; nor was it suppressed until after the passing of the horrible “Statute of Heretics 1410, and the burning, on the strength of this law, of the heretic priest Sautré, and of Badbie, a heretic tailor, — the first heretics burnt in England — and the slow roasting to death some years later (1418) of Lord Cobham. Then for a time Lollardry seemed burnt out. But it is easier to burn men than ideas, and from the very ashes of these martyrs the same ideas rose in other form. Truly, this revolutionary upheaval was followed by a period of passivity, when, what with foreign and civil war, the people rubbed along in comparative quiet, although their general condition was becoming more wretched, and the increase, constant and progressing, of “free” labourers grew with the growing trade and commerce. With the beginning of the sixteenth century we find the poverty and misery of the non-gildated worker of earlier centuries extending to the gilds themselves. Hitherto, the apprentice, journeyman, artisan, master, each filling his own place in the feudal community, had been comparatively well off. Now they were being crushed out of their comparative ease and comfort. The very class which in its own interest had so remorselessly and brutally persecuted the communistic, and even the non-communistic Lollards, now itself began to rebel against the “tyranny” of the Church — i.e., of the great landowning hierarchy. The Church was no longer the bulwark against heresy. It was now in the way of that free expansion of trade that had become a necessity for the very existence of the large class of upstart nobles who were taking the place of the old feudal lords, more or less killed off during the long civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster. By the beginning of the sixteenth century this new class was prepared to accept, nay, forced to accept, the tactics of Henry VIII., as the only policy likely to profit themselves. The small, and then the large, monasteries were suppressed; the enclosing of commons went on in good earnest; towns decayed, and many that had flourished were now in ruins, the grass growing in the deserted streets. Amid the gloom and misery of this awful time one figure stands out luminous, radiant — the figure of the first great Communist, Thomas More. After his execution, in 1535, the general condition of the people grew worse and worse. Commerce and trade were increasing, but misery and starvation grew even more rapidly. Thousands of landless men and women were starving in the towns or wandering helpless through the land, until the most brutal legislation was directed against them. More described the true condition of society when he declared it was no more than a “conspiracy of the rich against the poor; the rich were decreasing wages by private fraud or even by public law”; and they “devise every means by which they may secure to themselves what they have amassed by wrong, and then take to their own use and profit at the lowest possible price the work and labour of the poor,” who were forced to lead a “life so wretched that even a beast’s life seems enviable.” Others besides More give us an idea of the misery that was becoming general, but the bloodthirsty Acts against the poor speak most eloquently of all. Naturally, such a state of things did not come about suddenly, or without many struggles. Again and again the people rose in rebellion, only to be met by fire and sword. From end to end of England whole districts were given up to military execution; gibbets covered the land till, for a time, there was “peace.” But only for a time. It took generations to reconcile the English people to the “Reformation.” One of the most curious and interesting of the risings occurred under Edward VI., the son and successor of the Royal monster, Henry VIII., — the peasant rising, led by Robert Kett, in Norfolk. Small risings had been general, but in 1549 Robert Kett, proclaiming a kind of rough, primitive Communism gathered some 16,000 men around him at Mousehold Hill, Norwich. The people were, according to an old account, complaining “bitterly against the authoritie of gentlemen .... For the pride of great men is now intolerable ... These” [ie., the rich] “abound in delights and compassed with the fulnesse of things .... thirst only after gaine, but themselves” [i.e, the people] “had nothing all their life long but sweat, mourn, hunger, and thirst. How long should we suffer so great oppression? .... For so far are they [the “gentlemen"] now gone in cruelty and covetousness as they are content not only to take by violence all away, and by force and villainy to get, except they may also suck, in a manner, our blood and marrow out of our veines and bones. The common pastures left by our predecessors .... are taken away. The lands which in the memories of our fathers were common are made several [i.e., private property]. We desire liberty and an indifferent” [i e., common] “use of all things.” Meanwhile not only the peasants, but the artisans of Norwich and other Norfolk towns, enthusiastically supported the movement, and Kett’s “camp” became really a revolutionary centre for this part of England. And similar movements, though not on so large a scale, were going on elsewhere, notably in Yorkshire in the north and Cornwall in the west. In Yorkshire it was “prophesied” — and the prophecy was, of course, an expression of the desires of the people — that “noblemen should be destroyed and no king reign in England, the realm to be governed by four governors to be elected by the Commons holding a Parliament.” It is noteworthy that even the most bigoted and anti-socialistic historians admit that Kett maintained perfect order in his “camp.” Violence was absolutely prohibited, and although Kett seized upon sheep and cattle for food — which was fairly divided among all his followers — no human life was allowed by him to be sacrificed. On more than one occasion his followers clamoured for the blood of some specially hated landlord, Kett would not consent to bloodshed or persecution. He was to pay dearly for his generous policy. The rising was growing really serious; the Government as well as the lords saw that it must not only be crushed, but that their only chance lay in exterminating the rebels. And so an army, composed chiefly of German and Italian mercenaries, under the command of the Earl of Warwick, was despatched against the Communists of Norwich. For days fierce fighting raged; at least 3,500 men were slain; then a deliberate, cold-blooded massacre followed. “Rebels” were hanged by the score, and indeed the murdering was only stopped on the thoroughly practical ground that if it went on much longer no workers would be left to toil for the lords. These, in their blind fury, wanted the hanging and burning and slaying to go on. The practical Warwick now inclined to “mercy,” and frankly declared to the “gentlemen” that if the killing went on they would “have to be plowmen themselves, and harrow their own lands.” Kett and his brother were taken prisoners, and the two men who had never allowed one drop of blood to be shed were of course executed. They had attacked private property, the most heinous of crimes. In the long martyrology of the English people struggling to be free the name of Kett is not unworthy to be remembered by the side of the early Lollard rebels, by the side of Thomas More. But, though the rebellion in Norfolk and in other parts of England was crushed, we are told by the reverend historian and antiquarian Blomefield (who is much shocked at it) that “the rebellious stomachs of the common people was not so soon brought down as their camp was dispersed,” and that for many a year “the populace bare an inveterate hatred against the Earl [Warwick] because of his victory.”
The years that immediately followed Kett’s rebellion were years of suffering and misery for the people. There were constant risings, small or large; one historian, indeed, declares that from 1547 to 1558 not a single year had passed without “some serious rebellion, some ghastly massacre, or some national disaster.” The nobles, with what had yet remained of feudal tradition, the monasteries, with what was yet left of charitable precept, were gone. And through all the religious persecution, peculiar not to the unhappy woman known to official English history as “Bloody Mary,” but common to all the Tudors, and especially characteristic of that curious “virgin” Queen Elizabeth, runs the one great question — the actual social condition of the people. It should be remembered that Mary tried somewhat to check the ruthless exploitation of the people. Her Act for the Protection of Weavers (1555) is directed against the “rich and wealthy clothiers” (i.e., merchants), who “many ways oppress” the workers, some “by setting up loomes” in their own houses worked by unskilful and unapprenticed workers, some by “engrossing of loomes .... and letting them out at such unreasonable rents as the poor artificers are not able to maintain themselves, much less their wives and families,” some “by giving much less wages” than were formerly paid. But the process of exploitation by the employing class, now beginning to form a distinct and powerful one in the country, and the constant expropriation of the people from the soil, went on. One single fact suffices to paint the position of the poorer among the workers during the last years of the sixteenth century. Between the times of Henry VIII. and Elizabeth (1509-1603) thousands upon thousands of English folk were hanged as “vagrants;” other thousands were whipped, branded, mutilated for the crime of having been expropriated from the land. The reign of Elizabeth marks another important event in the annals of the English people: the introduction of the hideous “Poor Law.” But side by side with all the dumb suffering, indeed resulting from it, there was growing up a feeling against a society that not only tolerated, but itself produced, such misery. Assuming, as in former times a religious form, there was beginning that great revolutionary movement of the Puritans that was to culminate in the Commonwealth of Cromwell, and that was to cost Charles I. his head. Undoubtedly, the revolution of the seventeenth century was largely a political one. But of course it had an economic basis, and we shall find a more or less socialistic element — so far as the time could allow of Socialism — amid the general upheaval.
The embodiment of this movement is to be found chiefly among the so-called “Levellers.” But even among these two very distinct tendencies are noticeable. The best known, perhaps, among the leaders of the “Leveller” movement in its original, and subsequently its less socialistic form, is John Lilburne. Already in 1647 i.e, two years before that final stage of the struggle between King and Parliament that ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles I. — Lilburne, the “honest John” of that day, drew up an address full of phrases with a curiously modern ring about them. He declared that, despite the many protests against the grievances under which the people suffered, no attempt had been made to redress them. As a step towards obtaining such redress, Parliament must be dissolved and re-elected; further, there must be no “law paramount” binding upon future Parliaments, which should be elected by manhood suffrage every three years, such Parliaments to have the supreme right of legislation, thus setting aside the authority of the House of Lords and of the King. This reform was demanded on the ground that “all power is originally and essentially in the whole body of the people .... and their free choice or consent by their representatives is the only original foundation of all just government.” At the moment when Lilburne was thus demanding that the people should govern themselves,. Cromwell was still inclined to support the monarchy — a limited and hampered one truly, but still a monarchy. The idea of manhood suffrage was brought before Parliament, its proposer, Rainsborough, saying: “I think that the poorest he in England hath a life to live as well as the greatest He, and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government.” Ireton, Cromwell’s right-hand man, on the other side declared that only those who had a “permanent fixed interest in the Kingdom” (i.e., possessed land) should have votes. This was, of course, only an interlude, though an interesting one in the struggle that was raging between the King and Commons, and it is certain that had the Levellers confined their attention to mere declamation on the rights of the people, they would have been left severely alone by the astute Cromwell, Lord Protector. But Lilburne and his friends addressed themselves especially to the army. Now with his army Cromwell would have no tampering, and very soon Lilburne’s words were declared treasonable. As to Cromwell, he said quite frankly of these awkward opponents, “You have no other way to deal with these men but to break them, or they will break us.” It should be noted that while Lilburne demanded chiefly certain political reforms, there were others, originally his own followers, who demanded other things, and openly attacked private property. This section of the Levellers was known as the “Diggers,” or “True Levellers.” They declared all landlords “thieves and murderers,” called upon labourers to work for hire no longer,” demanded that “particular property should be abolished,” and the earth be made “a common treasury.” While all this great revolution was proceeding, while the great struggle between King and People was growing to a head — a struggle that was to cost Charles his; while, in turn, Cromwell was fighting against and ruthlessly putting down (in his own words it was a question of “breaking or being broken”) all the many more or less revolutionary and communistic sects e.g., the Levellers, following either Lilburne  or his more advanced fellows, the “True Levellers” or “Diggers'’ — another revolution even more momentous and far-reaching was proceeding too. The old modes of production that had for some time been breaking up, and had, here and there, even shown signs of disappearing altogether, were now being rapidly replaced by new ones. Men were not only being completely divorced from the soil, but skilled artisans and handicraftsmen were being, transformed into labourers, at best skilled only in one particular branch of their own trade; division of labour was already doing its work, and already the bitter cry against machinery was going up. The cry was not the less bitter that the machines and the methods of working them were so often introduced by the hated “alien” from beyond seas. This cry against machinery is a far earlier one than most historians recognise. Thus the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France by Louis XIV., with the consequent emigration of the Huguenots, is not only given as the immediate origin of the silk trade in England, but these refugees are said to have introduced all the silk spinning and weaving machines. As a matter of fact, so early as 1616 there was a complaint on the score of machinery driving men out of work, even as More had said that sheep ate men where once men had eaten sheep. Thus we find a complaint that men who had fled to England from persecution “being here, their necessity became the mother of their ingenuity .... they devise .... engines for working tape, lace, ribbon, and such, wherein one man doth more among them than seven Englishmen can do, so that their cheap sale of commodities beggareth all our English artificers of that trade, and enricheth them.” And so early as 1601 Wheeler, in his “Treatise of Commerce,” noted that a man no longer “made merchandise” of the “works of his own hand” alone, but also of “another man’s labour.”
With the years following the end of the Republic of Cromwell and the Restoration of that brilliant ruffian Charles II. in 1660, came the period which saw what has, in very mockery, been called “the great Revolution” — the replacing of the Stuarts by the Dutch William and the Hanoverian Georges. This period saw the initiation .of the National Debt and unspeakable degradation and misery for the English people. Trade, it is true, to some extent increased; but the poverty and suffering of the people increased far more rapidly, and there began to be built up that proletarian army growing so rapidly to-day. The condition of the working-class became more and more wretched. This century saw those who had had some sort of a living, or were able to earn wherewith to live, reduced to beggary. Machinery was doing its work, and the displaced hand worker went to swell the ranks of the agricultural labourers. And as Don Quixote fought his windmill, so the people saw the enemy in the machine itself, not its proprietor, and it was against this iron foe, destined to be ultimately their own best friend, that they revolted first. With the Napoleonic War the condition of the people was indeed desperate. In 1812 Lord Byron could say in the House of holds on the Poor Law: beheld such squalid wretchedness as I have seen ... in the heart of a Christian country.” I have traversed the seat of war in the Peninsula [Spain]; I have seen some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never .... have I beheld such squalid wretchedness as I have seen .... in the heart of a Christian country.” In 1811, Romilly writing of the children declares it a common practice .... to bind children in large numbers to the proprietors of cotton mills in Lancashire and Yorkshire .... The children are as much lost to their parents as if they were shipped off .... to the West Indies .... Instances have occurred not a few .... of wretches who have murdered their parish apprentices” [i.e , poor children sent out under the Poor Law by any particular parish] “that they might get fresh premiums with new apprentices.” The manufacturers even agreed to take one idiot for every nineteen sane children. These children began work generally at the age of seven, often at five, and worked from fifteen to seventeen hours a day. And yet a quite ordinary bourgeois historian (Mr. Spencer Walpole) declares that “the lot of the parents .... was equally hard” — and proceeds to give details of the hideous condition to which the workers and paupers were reduced. The distress grew apace, and with it riots began to break out in various parts of the country. “I look to the winter with fear and trembling,” said the Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon. Nor were the riots confined to the towns. The agricultural districts were ablaze with fires. But the most serious form of the riots that expressed the general misery and discontent of the people of England, “sole mistress of the seas,” was that known as the “Luddite rising.” The name again was a nickname, and arose from a very curious cause. Thirty years before the actual Luddite rising (1816) there lived in a Leicestershire village a “natural” named Ludd. He was employed as a stocking worker, and one day when some lads had been tormenting him, being unable to get at them, in a sudden access of fury he broke his stocking-frame machine. Later on, when in their rage at machinery, the workers began to smash up the stocking-frame machines, these rioters were nick-named “Luddites” after the poor village idiot, Ned Ludd.
The discontent spread even to Scotland and to Ireland, while in some towns in England “every machine” had been broken. There were serious risings in the north, south, east, west and midlands; the whole country, in fact was in a state of more or less revolt. “The lower orders,” reported the chief of police of Manchester, “are everywhere meeting in large bodies and are very clamorous,” while side by side with these public demonstrations secret societies were springing up, whose subsequent influence we shall see later. It is interesting to note that it was the exceptional distress of 1816 which caused risings like that of Spa Fields (London), the march of the “Blanketeers" and the Nottingham machine-breaking riots, just as the exceptional sufferings of the year 1819 provoked the rising that ended in the celebrated Peterloo massacre, sung by Shelley in his immortal poem; just as the distress some years later lead to the beginning of the Reform movement, and above all to the great Chartist movement. But these risings, originating in sheer misery, disappeared, or at any rate ceased to cause the ruling classes much anxiety, with periods of comparative prosperity. Towards 1822-3, however, a sudden drop from slightly better conditions, caused a fresh feeling of dissatisfaction, and that of a more permanent character. The misery indeed was unspeakable. Thus in 1825-6 one person in every six in England and Wales was receiving relief — i.e., was more or less a pauper. And the discontent was becoming, from year to year, like the misery, more and more chronic, and more and more wide-spread. “Wretchedness, ruin and misery, swallow up all in their vortex,” said a member of Parliament. For example in a Warwick parish, partly agricultural, partly manufacturing, of 7,100 persons, 2,000 were receiving parochial relief, and 2,100 were unable to pay rates. In Aylesbury, one of the richest agricultural districts in England, the Poor Rate amounted to 30s. an acre. In Somersetshire in a parish of 1,900 persons, 1,000 were paupers. In Barnsley (Yorkshire) the average wage was twenty pence per week. In Sussex the wage was threepence to fourpence per day. In such a town as Huddersfield twopence per day. A very large portion of the working classes,” said a member of Parliament, Mr. J. Wood, in the debate of 1830 on the speech from the Throne, “were approaching starvation; they wanted food and clothing; the best workmen could not find employment . . . . the large farmer was reduced to a small farmer, the small farmer was becoming a labourer, and the labourer was becoming a pauper.” “At last,” wrote Cobbett, “it will come to a question of actual starvation or fighting for food; and when it comes to that point I know that Englishmen will never lie down and die by hundreds by the wayside.” Meantime, it did again and again, especially in the southern counties suffering from terrible agricultural depression, come to fighting; here and there, indeed, it came to regular battles. Finally a Special Commission was appointed to “try” the rioters, over 1,000 of whom were brought up before it. Then for a while the movement seemed crushed out. The Commission was followed by the historic trials of Cobbett and Carlile on a charge of using “inflammatory language.” Carlile had the misfortune to be tried in the January of 1830 and was condemned to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of £2,000. Cobbett, not tried until the July of the same year, by which time the excitement over the first “Reform Bill” was at its height, was acquitted by the jury, and received an immense ovation as the hero of the hour, despite the very “incendiary” nature of his speeches and writings. The English governing classes have always understood (with the exception of Charles I. and his followers, who paid dearly for the error) the wisdom of yielding, more or less gracefully, to a genuinely popular demand, and by thus yielding to secure such a compromise — a compromise is always dear to the English heart — as should satisfy, for the time being, the dissatisfied, without unduly hurting themselves. The whole history of the “Reform” movement is the history of such yielding to pressure it was no longer safe to withstand; of compromise; of giving way on both sides, both sides gaining and losing something. It has been said that the whole country in 1830-31 demanded “the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill,” and that the country got “the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing — but the Bill.” By June 7th, 1832, the first Reform hill was passed. Roughly speaking, it enfranchished a large number of men hitherto disfranchised; disfranchised a certain number of corrupt and small boroughs; added 55 county members, and 44 members representing great unrepresented towns. Scotch and Irish representation also were dealt with.
But directing, controlling the Reform movement, though for the most part unconsciously, and already going far beyond the demands of the “Reformers,” was another body — not called, until some years later, by the name which has become historical — the body known ultimately as the “Chartists.”
The real history of this movement, the first really great political movement of the modern working class, is but little known, and material concerning it is very scanty. For such facts as are here given I am chiefly indebted to the kindness of Mr. Graham Wallas, who placed his own valuable notes at my disposal. The origin of this extraordinary movement, above all, is little known. Of course, most of the six “points” finally put forth as the Charter had each at various times been demanded, and most of them discussed, in the House of Commons; but it was the putting them together that gave them their special interest and their chief significance. There can be no doubt that they were originally propounded by Major John Cartwright so early as 1775; and when the contempt into which the House of Commons had fallen in the eighteenth century, and the strong feeling against the despotism of the mad George III. gave a special impetus to demands for “Reform,” he carried on a vigorous agitation. In 1785 a manifesto, identical with that of Cartwright, was drawn up, and the Duke of Richmond undertook to introduce a bill giving effect to these demands in the House of Lords. But the time was unfortunately chosen, for the anti-Catholic riots, known as the Gordon riots, were raging, and when the frightened Lords rushed into the House, their clothes torn to rags, mud-bespattered — the Richmond proposals, of course, collapsed. It is curious that it was an aristocrat in the House of Lords who thus began what was to grow into a genuine working-class movement. Between 1780 and 1790, indeed, a number of all kinds of “Associations” were started, mostly aristocratic, whose members were expected to pay heavy entrance fees and subscriptions. The aristocrats were known as sympathisers with the “French views” — i.e., with the French revolutionary movement — until they became alarmed at it. Up till 1792 this curious movement for reform had counted practically no workers in its ranks; but in that year, one Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker, started a “Corresponding Society,” which soon spread all over England and Scotland (the entrance-fee was one shilling, and the subscription one penny a week), and practically put forward Cartwright’s plan — the ballot only being omitted from the demands. It is an interesting fact that then and later there was strong opposition to the ballot on the part of a large section of the workers, on the ground that to demand secrecy of voting was “unworthy of free men.” But by 1794 the Government and the ruling classes were frightened out of their wits at the events in France, and when the members of the society summoned a conference at Edinburgh — they called it a “Convention,” which added to the terror of the bourgeoisie — several delegates were arrested and tried. Some on the vaguest charges were actually hanged, and others sentenced to as much as fourteen years transportation to Botany Bay. Then Hardy himself was arrested, but the jury refused to convict him. The persecution of these men had, however, done its work; the whole of the aristocratic “Associations” disappeared; only some members of the “Corresponding Society” were left, until they too dropped off — thanks to the infamous laws that were rushed through Parliament, making every political act a serious offence, one man, e.g., being sentenced to five years solitary confinement for hissing the King. Meantime, the condition of the country was, as we have seen, in dealing with the Luddites, wretched beyond words and in the midst of this fierce persecution and still fiercer poverty, the first chapter in the story of Chartism ends. A period of reaction followed, then one of compromise, until there was again a stirring among the people. This time in England the movement was largely agricultural; in Ireland, under the leadership of the famous Dan O'Connell, chiefly political.
The excitement over the Reform Bill had given a new impetus to the movement and attempts were again made to organise the workers. For when the excitement died out, it was found that, although 600,000 persons had been enfranchised by the Bill, the franchise had not been given to one single workman.
The second chapter in Chartism may be said to begin about 1830, and its leading spirits were largely under the influence of Robert Owen. Indeed, the organisation that was to play so important a part, the “Workman’s Union,” was originally composed almost wholly of followers of Owen. While the middle-classes, satisfied for the time being with their Bill, settled down into content, discontent was spreading among the working class. For a while the movement seemed becoming non-political, and only trade unions, the only means the workers then could use, grew quietly in strength and importance. With the enormous and unparalleled growth of the northern manufacturing districts, with the growing misery of the handloom weavers and of the workers generally, began a period of frightful suffering. The horrors of the factories, the infamies of child-labour, the incredibly low wages and long hours of the factory “hands,” are known to readers of “Capital,” and of “Engels’ “Condition of the Working Class in England.” Even a middle-class historian like Spencer Walpole (twice Home Secretary under the Liberal administration) says “the misery which they [the people] endured in 1816 and 1833 was nothing compared with the protracted wretchedness which commenced in 1837 .... In 1839, 1,137,000 persons were in receipt of relief in England and Wales alone; in 1840, 1,199,000; in 1841, 1,299,000; and in 1842, 1,429,000 . . . One out every 11 persons was a pauper. One-tenth of the population of Manchester; one-seventh of the population of Liverpool lived in cellars.” .... In 1841, 500,000 persons depended upon hand-loom weaving and had to exist upon two-pence half-penny per day.” Yet .... “horrible as these figures seem there is reason to believe that they are understated." With all this the Poor Laws were so hideous that their administration cried aloud for some modification. “Men were made paupers by the Corn Laws,” it was said, “and starved to death by the Poor Laws.” The infamy of these Poor Laws, and the general misery was again bringing forth a movement, and once more the elder leaders who had already done good service, Heatherington, Lovett, Cleaver, etc. came forward. They were reinforced by the arrival in England of Feargus O'Connor, elected to Parliament as a “Repealer” and follower of Dan O'Connell.
Of the innumerable organisations springing up everywhere the most important was the “Workman’s Association.” At a meeting composed almost wholly of working-men, held on the 5th February, 1837, at a tavern in the Strand, despite the opposition of O'Connell, the whole of the historic “points” of the Charter were adopted, and the organ of O'Connor, The Northern Star, which was, more or less, the official organ of early Chartism, founded. The six points of this programme were: Universal Suffrage (it should, however, be understood that “universal” was never used in any other sense than that of “manhood” suffrage — women did not count); Vote by Ballot, Annual Parliaments, Equal Electoral Districts, Abolition of Property Qualification for Members, and Payment of Members. From this moment the movement spread like wildfire. All over the country huge meetings were held. In the November of 1838 a meeting, it is said, of over 200,000 persons was held at Kensal Moor, presided over by a Member of Parliament, Fielden, and at it the parson, Stephens, made his celebrated declaration that the Chartist Movement was a “knife-and-fork” question. Some idea of the general temper of the masses may be gathered from the fact that Stephens could declare they had only come unarmed to the meeting because the constables and boroughmen of Manchester had declared they had full confidence in the orderliness of the meeting. “If they had not made that declaration,” said he, “I should have brought 10,000 armed men with me. I should have exhorted every man capable of bearing arms to flock to this standard and under it to fight the battle of the Constitution.” Fielden, meantime, was asked to present a great petition to the two Houses of Parliament. A few days later, Stephens having made a still more violent speech, was arrested, although not tried for some months, and then sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. With these demonstrations a new phase of the movement was entered upon. On the one hand it became more intimately connected (in the north especially) with the agitation for the Ten Hours Bill; and on the other, the dissensions between those who advocated physical force and those who believed in moral force began to grow more acute. In 1839 a “Convention” was held in London, which decided to draw up another petition for presentation to Parliament. Parliament refused to receive the petition, with the result that riots of a more or less serious nature occurred; the police and military were called out to suppress them, and the chief leaders were arrested. For the moment “order” was restored, but an attempt was even then being organised by the Chartists to seize the town of Newport. The attempt failed. Twenty Chartists were shot dead, and the three ring-leaders, Frost, Jones, (not to be confounded with Ernest Jones) and Williams sentenced to death for high treason, a sentence commuted to transportation for life. In 1840 a Member of Parliament tried to obtain their pardon — but only five other members (including Disraeli) supported him. With this Chartism sinks for a time into the background, while the agitation against the Corn Laws becomes more prominent — an agitation, of course, that was not a working class movement. “The working-class,” says Walpole, “were Socialists and Chartists; the middle-class were members of the Anti-Corn Law League.” But after a short period of comparative quiet the Chartists once more came to the front, and the extreme distress of the working-class undoubtedly again sent thousands to swell the numbers of the discontented. Another Convention was held, and again a monster petition was drawn up; again Parliament refused to receive it and again the “Physical Force” Party tried to convince the Chartists that their only hope was in an armed revolt. How serious the situation had become is perhaps best seen from the military plan drawn up by Charles Napier, which was meant to meet any possible attempt at a rising.
And now (1842) began one of the most famous strikes of the English workers. It started with the colliers of Staffordshire and soon spread — thanks largely to the influence of the Chartists — through the greater part of England to Scotland and Wales. Although it was in many cases violently suppressed, its effect did not a little to help on the passing of the Ten Hours Bill in 1844. The internal dissensions among the Chartists were, however, becoming more and more virulent. Those who, with the Tory Oastler, believed only in economic improvements, and those who held that these social improvements could only be obtained by means of political action, found it practically impossible to work harmoniously together. For a time, encouraged by the Continental movement, there was a revival of Chartism; but if the French Revolution on the one hand inspired the English workers to fresh efforts, it helped to frighten away the petty middle-class; the internal squabbling grew more bitter, and Chartism had, as Engels says, “collapsed internally even before it collapsed externally.” The final collapse, so far as the public was concerned, came with the demonstration, announced with much flourishing of trumpets by Feargus O'Connor, at Kennington Common on the 10th of April, 1848. The demonstration that was to have been the beginning of a revolution was a complete failure, and with it ended the Chartist movement. Or at least this phase of it. But the effects of this great movement — the first political movement of the class-conscious proletariat — are felt to this day. Not the workers of England only, but the workers of the whole world are the debtors of the Chartist movement. And that is why they remember it with respect, with admiration and with pride.
The collapse of the movement, however, necessarily brought with it an immense reaction in England. For years the political movement of the workers as a class was, if not dead, at least in a profound sleep. It is but now, fifty years almost since the disastrous April of 1848, that the workers are awakening from this sleep. Not but what there have been political movements in which the workers participated, and consequently played the most conspicuous part. In the various Reform movements, in the agitations to improve factory legislation, or to assert threatened rights of public speech, public meetings and a free press, they did more than their share of the actual fighting. But it was invariably as the supporters of a bourgeois party, not as an independent workers’ party. But if an independent, revolutionary workers’ party died out with Chartism, the English working-class movement itself broke out with equal life and vigour in another direction — that of Trades Unionism. I have referred already to the craft gilds, existing long centuries ago in England. Unquestionably these gilds bear a marked resemblance to trade unions. Their main object — the special protection of special sections of work and workers not infrequently at the expense of kindred sections — is, on the surface, identical. And we very early read of strikes, lock-outs, sweating, truck, not to mention “pauper aliens.” But all the same the trade unions are by no means directly descended, as some of the Brentanos would have us think, from the ancient gilds. There is resemblance, analogy — no more. Thus, for example, the organisations connected with the building trades were amongst the earliest and the most powerful, just as they are still among the strongest unions. Yet between the end of the fifteenth and end of the eighteenth centuries there is no trace of any organisation whatsoever in the trade. Again, in the case of the weavers and fullers, who were among the first to combine, we find organisations right through the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; then the organisations grew weak and disappeared, not to reappear until the beginning of the eighteenth century. And then, of course, the holding together of the weavers was due as much to their position as foreigners, as refugees, as to mere trade interest. With the beginning of the eighteenth century, roughly speaking, we have the beginning of the trade union movement (among the first unions was that of the journeymen tailors). By the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth the complaints of manufacturers and employers, that the men were trying to “raise the price of labour” and shorten the working day, become more frequent and angry. Moreover, at this time many workingmen’s clubs sprang into existence — of course, among the better-paid of the men — providing a nucleus for genuine trade organisations. It was in the west and the Midlands of England that the real trade union movement began. In the West among the woollen workers; in the Midlands among the frame-work knitters. So successful indeed, were the latter, that the Gloucestershire men were able to force the justices to fix a scale of wages. Against this the masters protested violently, and there began a long, fierce struggle between the men, who by combination were trying to somewhat improve their conditions, and the masters who were trying every means to make every sort of combination illegal. Acts of the most brutal nature were rushed through Parliament by the manufacturers. How incredibly brutal they were may be judged from the fact that it was made a capital offence to break a frame and to destroy a machine. It was not till 1833, however, that trade unionism became a power, and played a part in the working-class movement. Under the inspiring influence of Robert Owen — who in October 1833 presided over the first Trade Union Congress — trade unionism for a while merged itself largely in the general agitation; was something more than the fight of a particular trade to benefit itself; assumed a larger and wider significance. It became, indeed, for a time, an Important factor in the Chartist movement. Then, with the collapse of that movement, with the disillusions, the disappointment, the despair, inevitably following such a collapse, the trade unions — as trade unions — began to play a prominent part, but with the end of Chartism ceased to have any independent political existence. Between 1843 and the sixties — when for a time trade revived and the condition of the proletariat was less desperate — the most powerful unions were started. Among these undoubtedly was that of the engineers, founded in 1853. In the early sixties began the great Nine Hours’ Movement — originated by the building trades. There was a “Nine Hours’ League,” and finally, in 1871, the Nine Hours’ Bill was passed. Like so many Bills it was better on paper than in practice, for the pernicious system of overtime has rendered it practically a dead letter. To the eternal honour of the English workers should here be recalled the magnificent, the heroic conduct of the Lancashire textile workers during the American Civil War, when the starving operatives stood staunchly by the right — starved, and suffered, and died, for the sake of the slave.
It was about this time that the newly formed London Trades Council and its secretary, George Odger, prepared the great welcome to Garibaldi, and not long after came many prosecutions for various “outrages” under the infamous “Master and Servants Act.” This Act practically gave the “master” power to do exactly as he liked, while the “servant” was absolutely at the mercy of the employer, and could be prosecuted on the most frivolous pretext. Relations between employers and employed were becoming less and less “harmonious''; the position of the workers more and more intolerable. Men were persecuted in the most unblushing manner; the combination of workers was rendered illegal, organisation made well-nigh impossible; unions were dissolved and their funds seized wholesale. The most infamous sentences were passed by class-influenced judges upon the class-conscious workers. In a word, the position of the English trade unionists at this period was not unlike that with which the German workers are so familiar to-day. Matters came to a head with the series of “outrages” that culminated in the “Sheffield Outrage” of 1866. On this occasion a can of gunpowder exploded in the house of a blackleg workman. There was an immense outcry, an immense panic. But, as usual, the English bourgeoisie did not entirely lose its head. There was much talk, of which the practical outcome was the appointing by Parliament of a Commission to enquire into the “Sheffield outrages” and all that had led up to them. This Commission sat from 1867-69 and presented no less than eleven reports. In 1869, true to the sensible method of English bourgeois Governments to give a little in order to gain much, a temporary measure affording some protection to trade unions, was passed. This temporary measure was subsequently embodied and elaborated in the “Trade Union Acts” of 1871 and 1876. It is a curious and now almost forgotten fact that during this time of persecution and oppression there grew up a strong feeling against the “No politics” cry of the unions. And there is little doubt that this feeling was largely, if not wholly due to the influence of the International Working Men’s Association. Thus, in 1868, 1869, and 1873, George Odger ran as a working-class candidate, opposed to all other bourgeois candidates, while the trade unions of London, under the same influence, played a most honorable and prominent part both in the great Garibaldi demonstrations and the great Reform Agitation. But the spirit of compromise once more triumphed. The bourgeoisie made concessions; so did the workers. With the result that trade unionism became trade unionism pure and simple, and the political significance of the movement began to disappear. But all the same the salutary influence of the International made itself felt, and although the ingrained spirit of gild-conservativism could not be completely exorcised, the English Trade Unions rendered invaluable service to the Continental workers by supporting their “foreign” comrades during some of the great strikes between 1860 and 1870. There was infused into the English movement that “new spirit” which has had such great results, and which, according to the recent work on Trade Unionism by Beatrice and Sydney Webb, is to “be much ascribed to the direct influence of Karl Marx.” The Nine Hours League and the long fight for the Nine Hours Day was a sign of the “new spirit,” and it is worth noting that the Trade Union Congress of Bristol (1878) applauded a paper along purely Socialist lines read by Weiler (and drawn up with the help of Marx) on the limitation of the hours of labour. It is true the applause was platonic, and for years trade unionism — the majority of trade unionists had deserted from the International after the Paris Commune — became distinctly reactionary. It seemed as if the old revolutionary spirit of Chartist days, and the short revival of it during the sixties had died out. With the cry of “No politics” — so welcome to the bourgeois, the Anarchists; and the mouchards — the English workers degenerated into a mere tail of the “Great Liberal Party,” and, with the exception of some strikes, made for a slight bettering in the conditions of some special class of labour, the working-class movement seemed dead. The unions were becoming merely huge benefit societies for the relief of the employing class. It is a strange fact that while the unions originally were great fighting organisations who, under the cloak of “Benefit Societies,” fought the employers, they now largely became great benefit societies under the cloak of “fighting Organisations.” To a large extent this is still the case. Thus the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, one of the oldest, richest, and most powerful of the unions, during the last year (189l) spent the huge sum of £246,388 on “benefits” — i.e., sick pay, out of work pay, superannuation — as against £1,568 spent on strikes, lock-outs, and real “fighting” purposes. There came a long period of stagnation. But economic forces were at work, more revolutionary than any revolutionary party. The world market was being lost to England, and with it the superior position of the English workers. The number of unorganised “labourers,” and even of unorganised artisans was growing constantly; the trade unionists presently found themselves face to face with entirely new conditions. With 1889 (the year which is also memorable for the first of the new International Congresses) there began a movement whose effects have been infinitely greater than those who made it ever believed they would be. The first impulse came from the gas workers. In the March of 1889 a union had been formed among these “labourers,” whom the “skilled” artisans had hitherto looked down upon, and these men, instead of demanding increased wages, demanded an eight hours day. Under the leadership of William Thorne — one of the ablest, most disinterested and devoted men England numbers among her working-class leaders, a convinced Socialist as well as trade unionist — the gas workers were successful, and by the July of 1889 they had gained the eight hours day, better wages, and better conditions generally. The union was shortly after extended to every class of “unskilled” labour (it numbers some seventy different trades now) and even to women. This struggle and this unprecedented, victory inspired another class of workers with hope and with the idea of organisation — a class that has always been not merely the poorest and the most exploited of all, but one that had been a constant danger and menace to the organised workers — i.e., the dock labourers. If the gas workers could organise why should not they also try to obtain more human conditions of life? In the July to August of the same momentous year (1889) began the now historical Dock Strike. The fight was a long and determined one, and was admirably engineered by Tom Mann, Champion, and especially John Burns. It must be remembered, however, that the extreme unpopularity of the dock companies, even among their fellow bourgeois, the sympathy of the whole middle-class press, and above all the magnificent contribution of £30,000 sent by the workers of Australia were as important factors in the winning of the strike as the courage, the discipline and the enthusiasm of the men. The immediate result of the “Great Strike” was a general movement all over the United Kingdom; in every town, even in agricultural districts, unions of “unskilled workers” sprang up, and following the lead of the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union these were organised on far more democratic lines than those now followed by the “old” unions. The first sign of change came at the Trade Union Congress of 1890, when after a bitter fight between the so-called “old” and “new” unions a resolution in favour of the legal Eight Hours Day was carried. At the same Congress a purely Socialist resolution was moved — but defeated. Since then, although the wave of enthusiasm that swept the country in 1890 has broken, and there is something of an ebb in the tide, the same Socialist resolution that had been moved and defeated in 1891, 1892, and 1893 — was actually carried by an overwhelming majority in 1894. It is true that many voted for it who either did not understand its bearing or who regarded it as a merely pious opinion. But this matters little comparatively. The movement is there — and that is the main thing. Meantime, the differences between the “old” and “new” unions are becoming more and more accentuated. The former adhere to the “No politics” cry — i.e., no working-class politics, and still pin their faith to the Liberal or even Tory Party; while the latter, like their Continental comrades, understand that their emancipation can only be achieved by means of political action as a class.
So far no reference has been made to any purely Socialist movement during recent years. And it must be at once admitted that the Socialist movement, as such, lags sadly behind the Continental movement. The Social-Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party are, however, doing valuable work. The smallness of their successes at recent elections is no criterion of their own strength, and above all it is no criterion of the strength of the Socialist movement. And the effect of the great May Demonstration, first organised by the Legal Eight Hours League, must not be overlooked. As was said in my note at the beginning, the present sketch makes no attempt to deal with recent movements, but only to give some account of the events leading up to them. Everyone can follow what is going on to-day, and a proper history of these events can only be written later. But assuredly Socialism is “in the air” — unorganised, undisciplined perhaps — but there, and despite the immense differences of English methods from Continental ones the spirit of Continental Socialism is permeating ever-widening circles of workers in the United Kingdom, and with the spread of this spirit there is beginning a new phase of that English Working-class Movement whose history I have been briefly tracing.