H.M. Hyndman

The Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 28
The Rise and Fall of the Chartist Movement

There are periods in the annals of Great Britain about which the truth has still to be told in a readable shape. This is certainly the case with the Chartist Movement. Owing to the fact that all the histories of the first sixty or seventy years of the nineteenth century, and that of the eventful generation from 1815 to 1848 in particular, have been written by authors wholly imbued with the ideas of the capitalist and profiteering middle class, or of the bourgeoisie as a whole, there is no general conception of the struggle then conducted by the Chartists and Radicals on behalf of the mass of the people. The details of that bitter conflict have been suppressed in the interest of that class. Consequently, little is known in our own country of the widespread democratic and Socialist agitation, which anticipated most of the social and political ideas that are so often attributed to foreigners. Even the names of the able, enthusiastic, self-sacrificing and persecuted leaders of the unceasing social and political propaganda, which stirred English society to its foundations, are forgotten; and, although they roused the spirit of revolt among the workers as it has never been roused since, the magnificent service they rendered is ignored.

Even the wage-earners of Great Britain, who owe nearly all they have gained to the Chartists, in the first instance, feel no gratitude whatever to the men who fought and fell in their splendid fight for the freedom of those who suffered in their own day, and of their successors, who now benefit by their work. These men strove for the complete emancipation of the wage-slave class. They knew, and they persistently preached, the great truth, that wage slavery is but chattel slavery in disguise. They spared no effort to convince their countrymen that the ownership of property lay at the foundation of all social freedom as of all social domination, and that, until the workers of a country owned the property collectively, which they had been wholly deprived of individually, real personal liberty they could not possibly enjoy. This was as revolutionary a policy as any that is put before the proletariat of any country at the present time.

The Chartists, although divided in opinion on more than one important question, held together on the imperative necessity for palliative measures of the capitalist anarchy prevailing all around them. Even the physical force section, as opposed to the purely political section, were agreed as to this. They ran terrible risks in the hope of obtaining the whole of their demands; but they were, as a party, thoroughly practical and reasonable in their readiness and anxiety to obtain some portion of their claims at once. And this moderate policy, from the capitalist standpoint, was scarcely less dangerous or more criminal than the extreme view. It was the Chartists who agitated and clamoured and threatened, in order to save babes of tender years from being overworked, flogged and half-starved in the hideous slave dens, that the factories of the Lancashire and Yorkshire capitalists then were. It was the Chartists, and the noble Socialist, Robert Owen, who first endeavoured to cut down by law the excessive and physically ruinous hours of labour for all industrial toilers. It was the Chartists who worked, with the then small and feeble trade unions, to secure full rights of combination and of strikes for the workers of all grades. It was the Chartists who never ceased to demand a free, unlicensed Press, free speech and freedom of the vote for all male adults. It was the Chartists who persistently pointed out to the people that Tory, Whig, Liberal and Radical were only labels which, however much their owners might differ on mere political issues, counted for little or nothing, when the rightful claims of the people to public ownership of land and wealth came up for discussion. Before entering upon a brief survey of the political work they did, it is well to describe what manner of men they were who entered upon this uphill struggle, to recall their names and to show the desperate difficulties against which they strove. In any other country than Great Britain these courageous agitators would be regarded as the heroes of the proletariat, martyrs of the rising faith in the co-operative solidarity of the whole body of workers. In England they failed; and glorious failure counts for nothing during a competitive age. Yet Feargus O’Connor, George Julian Harney, Ernest Jones, Bronterre O’Brien, Sadler, Oastler, Stephens, Ball, Lovett, Henry Vincent and their associates will be remembered, and their good deeds recorded, in the new development, when all that they vainly strove for before their time is realised, in the course of the next few generations. They were capable of great things themselves, and they prepared the way for greater things for others. They were writers, organ­isers and orators of mark. As orators, at least four of them were equal to W.H. Fox, John Bright or Villiers, while their ideals were higher, their aspirations nobler, their power of expression more effective.

The memories and traditions of those stirring times all agree upon this. Such enormous crowds as were held spellbound in the open air at Kershal Moor and elsewhere by Stephens, Ball and others were never gathered together in England before or since. To such a crowd did Stephens address his famous declaration that the subject in hand for the men before him was, in reality, a knife-and-fork question: the material must precede the ideal in order that men should rise to a higher conception of what humanity was capable. But education was essential too. Many of those speeches are still to be found, as they were reported at the time. To another big audience Bronterre O’Brien, when asked whether the capitalist did not work as well as his wage-earners, replied: “Yes, he works, works hard, works o’ nights. So does the wolf. He works, works hard, works o’ nights. But the harder he works, my friend, the worse it is for the sheep.” In like manner Lovett spoke and wrote strongly and sternly as to the position of the toilers of England. Possessed of no property but the force of labour in their bodies, they were the slaves of the men who owned all else.

The dominant class was furious against these men. Their speakers and writers were arrested, condemned, imprisoned, transported for life time after time. Little chance of justice had they in those days. Prejudiced judges, brutal and unscrupulous barristers, suborned juries: the verdict against them was assured, and their punishment settled before the prisoners came into court. Bronterre O’Brien was condemned to two years’ imprisonment for words which it was afterwards proved he never uttered. With others the same. No wonder that, under such conditions, with their Press under rigorous restrictions, with charges being trumped up against their leaders, every day, some of the hotter heads adjured their followers to resort to force. Stephens himself, like several others a Wesleyan minister, appealed to one of his vast assemblies to show whether they were ready to support his exhortations by arms. Hundreds of his hearers raised muskets aloft in their hands to show that they were.

Nor were local revolts under arms wholly unsuccessful. M. Leon Faucher, who certainly had no sympathy with Socialism, and still less with violent upheavals, writing to the Temps of the seven years when Chartist effort was strongest, declared that Great Britain had been in continuous and dangerous upset during the whole of that time. Nottingham Castle attacked and taken by rioters, Birmingham for three whole days in the hands of “the mob,” 8,000 to 10,000 miners out under arms in Wales, on account of the arrest and condemnation of Henry Vincent, and persistent unrest throughout the industrial districts of Lancashire and Yorkshire, were events which went far to justify the French observer’s statement. Of course the Government took strong steps to suppress these disorders – which, however, were entirely due to its own neglect of the abominable social conditions, and its refusal to apply any reasonable remedies. Even when laws were passed to check a few of the more notorious abuses, and to mitigate in some degree the horrors of the factory system, the ministry of the day, no matter what its political complexion, winked at the systematic infringement of its own ordinances by the employers.

As things were, even unorganised and premature resorts to violence might seem excusable, the administration of the day having proved itself wholly unwilling to act fairly by the people. It is still the fashion to say that our forbears were a cool, law-abiding, long-suffering, almost servile folk; that, however monstrous the oppression to which they were subjected, they always looked to peaceful political methods alone to obtain any partial redress or to secure any social advance; and that the history of that dismal epoch, prior to the passing and putting into operation of the first Factory Acts, offers marked evidence of the patience and resignation of the English people. Nothing can be more contrary to the truth. The risings and riotings and insurrections were unsuccessful in the ii, [?] yet they had a large share in forcing the governing minority to grant important palliatives of the existing social anarchy.

But the movement of the people which was led by the Chartists gave organisation and consistence, also, to advanced political claims which had been put forward from the end of the eighteenth century; and the ablest leaders looked to political action rather than to armed force for obtaining reforms. It was from the political Charter, suggested, it was said, by Feargus O’Connor, that the Chartists were given their name. They advocated universal manhood suffrage, annual parliaments, payment of members, secret ballots and equal electoral districts all over the country. This programme was moderate and sensible enough, although two out of the five reforms desired have not been obtained nearly ninety years, or three generations, later – so slow is any real advance in Great Britain.

But that such a political programme should have aroused enthusiasm, as it unquestionably did, shows how devoted Englishmen were to political action as the best means for righting their social wrongs; while the fear and hatred which the formulation of these reasonable demands engendered among the possessing classes proves that they, on their side, were resolutely determined not to forgo one iota of that overwhelming political and economic domination which had been so strongly fortified by the purely middle-class Reform Act of 1832. The Chartists wished to give full political rights to the whole of the adult male population who created the wealth of the country, in order that they might use their political power for their own economic advantage. The capitalists and profiteers, on the other hand, were as anxious as ever to exclude the whole people from any effective political suffrage, in order to keep all social and political influence in their own hands. Nor were they content even with the supremacy that they held over the workers before their great political victory of 1832. There was still a further step to be taken in order to render the economic and social condition of the people more hopeless.

Whatever may have been the defects of the old Poor Law, it did, at least, secure to the poor some provision for old age, in the shape of relief from the rates for the aged in their own homes, and for able-bodied labourers unable to obtain work by no fault of their own. They were thus not wholly at the mercy of the ruthless class which had them in its grip. Outdoor relief on a sufficient scale did afford the workers some subsistence at home, when the employers would otherwise have left them to starve. So the capitalists set to work, immediately on the realisation of their Reform Bill, to strengthen their own power over the mass of the people by the abrogation of the ancient law in favour of necessitous people, and the enactment of the new method for still further enslaving the propertyless class. This law was intended to remove from the unemployed all hope of any support, except under conditions which were even worse than the horrible factory toil from which they had temporarily escaped.

It was successful. The workhouses were dens of infamous oppression whose terrors are not even yet forgotten. The worst of starvation wages was better than these prisons, with their mental and physical torture. But since this abominable measure affected chiefly only the poorest of the poor, since it was supported by the most shameful misrepresentations, which still find currency, as to the natural laziness of the people, since the most preposterous exaggerations were spread abroad concerning the malefic effect of the old Poor Law, since, also, elaborate prose odes concerning the beneficent influence of capitalist production on British social life were spread abroad among the people – the ruling classes thought that this scheme of the employers to degrade the workers still further would be accepted without demur. It was not so.

Although the capitalist class controlled almost the entire Press, some of the workers at once recognised that the Act, hustled through the new and almost exclusively middle-class Parliament, was aimed against the interests of the entire working class. Especially was it directed at that growing, and already very large, section whose sole means of earning a livelihood was to find an employer to purchase their labour power (the only commodity they possessed) at mere subsistence wages, so long as they had health and strength enough to be profitable to the purchaser. These propertyless proletarians were also liable to suffer from periods of unemployment, through no fault of their own, but through the anarchical system of competition under which they toiled. Gluts of commodities which they themselves produced, as well as the introduction of new and improved machines into their special line of work, might throw the most industrious men out, workless and starving, upon the streets at any time. From the same causes skilled artisans often found themselves in the same predicament. In such hard times all these working folk were forced into the workhouse and treated as if they were criminals, in order that, when trade revived, they might accept the lowest possible wages to escape from this squalid servitude. This naturally infuriated many leaders of the people.

Seeing the increasing propertyless crowd cheated out of any share in the political representation, which the pressure of the toilers had enabled the middle class to obtain for themselves, and then seeing this political power, so gained, at once unscrupulously used against the wage-earners, they became convinced that political action, or general agitation, by itself was thenceforward futile, unless supported by armed insurrection, or by organised strikes and direct action on a large scale. Both of these methods aimed obviously at immediate social revolution. It cannot be denied, furthermore, that the time seemed more ripe for such a general upheaval than it did even immediately after the Napoleonic War. There were grievances enough to justify almost any revolt. This is the excuse for the advocates and resorters to physical force. They were mistaken, but it was a natural mistake. However, they could not expect that the capitalists, in the full plenitude of their domination, would hesitate to use all possible measures to hamper and suppress their assailants. In this class war the bourgeoisie had all the decisive weapons in their hands, and they used them.

Yet the political and educational work done by the political Chartists, in spite of all hindrances, was amazing. Their difficulties were so great that it is not easy, in these days, to appreciate them fully. Though the towns were growing and communications were improving, with Telford’s Macadamised roads and the commencement of railways, travelling was still very expensive and newspapers were very dear. Yet The Northern Star, the principal Chartist organ, which had a circulation of 50,000 copies, a very large number in those days, and The Poor Man’s Guardian, as well as Cobbett’s periodicals, exerted a great influence. Pamphlets and fly-sheets also did their work, and helped on the spread of ideas promulgated at their meetings by the Chartist orators. By this constant agitation and teaching they succeeded in obtaining no fewer than 1,000,000 genuine signatures to a petition in favour of the democratic political proposals set forth above. This gigantic petition, as might have been expected, was treated with contempt by the House of Commons.

This is worthy of note, showing the attitude of the capitalists and their nominees towards genuine democratic demands, when they feel strong enough to flout them. That the Chartists should have worked on steadily for political changes in the face of all the obstacles they encountered, the unfair methods used to defeat them and the persecution to which they were subjected, says much for their honesty, enthusiasm and courage. As I have said, they have never in any way received the recognition they deserve. The champions of the capitalists and profiteers have been extolled as heroes; their memories are cherished as those of saints. The leaders of the people are deprived of bread when living and are begrudged stones when dead. It is the same all through history. The lives of the leaders of the dominant class of any epoch are written by the members of that class. They, being in possession of all the educational and literary facilities of their day, indite “classical” works, which are handed on from generation to generation; while the truth about their opponents, so far as it can be found, is left to be deciphered and recorded in a future age.

But it must be admitted that, even during the years of greatest Chartist activity, large sections of the workers themselves, whilst they had a clearer view of the inevitable antagonism between the wage-earners and wage-payers than their immediate successors, or their descendants, until to-day, were neither sufficiently educated nor well organised enough to force concessions from the governing minority. Although in 1824 the right of the skilled workers to combine was at last legally recognised, this did not at first lead very far. The effect was to constitute an “aristocracy of labour,“ which, as one of the ablest of the Chartist leaders foresaw and predicted, would act for many a long day as a buttress or defence of the capitalists, by severing the interests of the highly paid artisans from those of the lower-paid unskilled labourers, and by fixing the attention of this aristocracy of labour upon the rates of the wages of the men in their own organisations, instead of upon the need of capturing the powers to produce and distribute wealth for the interest of all.

Although in the earlier stages of Chartism many of the organised workers, so far as their strength permitted, did support the proposals to limit the ruinous effect of unrestrained capitalist exploitation of labour, and to obtain political rights and representative powers for the whole adult population, nevertheless the prognostications of Brontcrre O’Brien were, as will be seen later, most unfortunately fulfilled. The skilled men, that is to say, lost sight of the fact that their interests and those of the unskilled men were one and the same, if they were both to be relieved from the crushing influence of capitalist monopoly. With their extreme anxiety to obtain higher wages, without looking to the final abrogation of the wages system, they grew, in fact, to be supporters of the employers in their domination. One section of the organised wage-earners became in this manner participators in the methods of employment which oppressed the whole class.

Worse than this, the excessive overwork of women, and the introduction of children into the mills found defenders among the very class which suffered from this short-sighted policy, so injurious to the best interests of the entire community. The adult male workers did not understand that the superior docility of the women and children, and their incapacity to revolt even by strikes, helped the employers to squeeze more profit out of the whole wage-earning body, by the competition of members of their own household on a still lower scale of subsistence payment than their own. The total wages coming into their homes at the week-end seemed to be increased by the common effort of the family, where, as an economic fact, the wages of the men by themselves would have been equal to that received by the fathers of families, their wives and children together, had it not been for the employment of these others on a lower standard of life. Working mothers upheld, ruinously, the sweating of their own children as whole-timers, and afterwards as half-timers, in the factories, on the ground that the family benefited by the wages thus earned, and that the work they had gone through themselves ought to be undertaken by their own boys and girls. Thus, no slight opposition to social improvemer came from the working class itself; and the obstacles the Chartists had to encounter in this respect have existed up to the present day. It is not surprising that, with such ignorance to combat, in the early days, it took many long years to make the Factory Acts effective.

All the practical social effects of unrestricted capitalism were however, explained to the people by the Chartists in plain easily understood language, none the less correct for being intelligible. Thus they taught that men, women and children from their lack of property of any kind, were compelled, in order merely to live, to sell the labour power in their bodies as a commodity – a commodity, moreover, which would not keep #8211; to the capitalists, on the lowest standard of subsistence usual in their trade; that the capitalists, landlords, bankers, brokers merchants, shopkeepers, etc., took, in the shape of rent, interest profit, commissions, commercial charges, differences of value all the social labour value that men, women and children produced in the factories, over and above the cost of raw material wear and tear, etc., and the mere cost of subsistence of the workers paid in wages; that the capitalists, landlords and then hangers-on gained virtually all the advantages of the great improvements in labour-saving machinery, chemistry, superior organisation, cheapness of coal, raw material and food, whereas the workers benefited little, if at all, but often rather suffered, from the introduction of new and improved processes; and that the wage-earners were not sure of receiving even the small remuneration which their low average standard of life called for, owing to commercial crises and other disturbances of trade.

All these facts were familiar to the working-class leaders of the early Chartist times, as also the truth that capitalism could not hold its own under free competition unless a fringe of unemployed labour were ever at hand to keep down the rate of wages, and that there could be no over-population, so long as men were constantly producing by their labour more than was necessary (if work were properly co-ordinated) to enable all to live in comfort and even luxury. These views were more advanced in genuine economics and sociology than any which were widely accepted at that time on the Continent of Europe. They were preached by the Chartists long before Karl Marx was heard of, and at least twenty years before the Communist Manifesto was published. [1]

Yet, supposing that the time had been ripe in England, as many then believed, for a great social revolution, one important stood in the way of both the political and physical force revolutionists. In all the serious upheavals, previous to the nineteenth century, London had taken a leading part. The men of the metropolis were formerly a turbulent folk. Cromwell, at the height of his power, had trouble with the citizens of the metropolis. This was not the case in the days of Chartism. That movement had its centres in the industrial districts of the north of England, where the big factory system had first taken root. London had shared to a relatively small extent in that development. There was agitation, there were meetings, there were small disturbances and ill-organised risings, but London was never really stirred by the propaganda. The Chartists did not underrate the importance of the capital. Efforts were made to rouse the population. But there was never any enthusiasm on the Thames at all comparable to the vigour and determination displayed in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the Midlands, or even Wales. The social programme never gripped the imagination of the populace in London as it did elsewhere; the conception of physical force never appealed to the descendants of the old train-bands: [?] the political demands themselves, though more acceptable to the Londoners, were not combined in their minds with ideas of a thoroughgoing transformation.

This was apparent at the imposing National Convention held by the Chartists in London in 1838, six years after the passing of the Reform Bill. The result of the gathering from which so much was expected was disappointing, and the local riots which occurred were easily suppressed. Nothing more of a serious character was attempted in the capital until ten years later, when the failure of the Great Demonstration of 10th April 1848, on Kennington Common, practically brought the whole movement to an end. This demonstration, however, caused great alarm. The Duke of Wellington concentrated a well-equipped army in London, prepared for all emergencies, and special constables were enrolled in addition in very large numbers. But the outcome of it all was given in answer to an inquiry of a shop keeper in the neighbourhood as to the cause of the interruption to the traffic in Fetter Lane: “It is only the Revolution going down Fleet Street.” It was impossible to rouse the centre of the Empire to any great extent; and this made failure certain though there were few who recognised it at the time.

In 1842 the physical force section of the Chartists may be said to have gone under; for the Kennington Common Demonstration in 1848 was, in reality, no more than a political assembly. At the same time the agitation for the Repeal of the Corn Laws which had been going on steadily took a very active shape. This measure was ardently advocated by the capitalists as the economic cure for all social ills. The Chartists, though favourable to Free Trade in theory, opposed Repeal most vigorously, unless it was accompanied by nationalisation of the land. They argued that the cheapening of the price of the necessaries of life which might follow upon Repeal would not in the least affect the status of the wage-earners in their relations with the capitalist class. Bread might cost less; if this was so, wages, under the conditions then prevailing, would fall relatively to that extent. No permanent social improvement would result for the working class. The wage-earners would be at the mercy of the employers as before, and in the long run the latter alone would gain.

Therefore the Chartists and their followers went so far in their opposition as to attend, interrupt, and break up Free Trade meetings wherever possible. They considered the Repeal of the Corn Laws not only as no remedy for the miserable condition of the workers already described, but as not even a palliative of the existing state of things. But there was a very much stronger reason for the vehement opposition offered to the capitalist Free Trade agitation which really determined their hostile attitude. The leading orators, agitators and writers of the Free Trade movement numbered in their ranks the most bitter opponents of any laws which might restrict the overwork of women, do away with the wholesale sweating of children, or limit the general hours of labour in the factories. Fox, Bright, and Cobden were all on the side of laissez-faire and Free Trade in sweated labour, as well as in imported corn.

Moreover, the same men and their associates were violent enemies of all combinations among the workers. Trade Unions might be an aristocracy of labour, as Bronterre O’Brien and other Chartists maintained, but they were organisations directed against the unlimited power of employers to decree and maintain low rates of wages for the skilled workers. It was upon this ground that the capitalist orators of Free Trade attacked them. Naturally this was a strong cause of offence to men who were striving for the uplifting of the whole people. In short, the Chartist leaders regarded the agitation for the Repeal of the Corn Laws by itself as no better than a red herring drawn by the employers across the trail of nationalisation and socialisation which should lead the workers to economic and social freedom. Further, the orators of Free Trade exaggerated most preposterously the glorious changes that would come over the condition of the people if their programme were carried out. It is very sad, and grimly ludicrous, to look back to-day at the predictions of the Free Traders as to the halcyon conditions which would prevail for the working people and their families if only the Corn Laws were re­pealed. Undoubtedly these Laws did benefit the landlords, and did raise the price of bread. But W. H. Fox, the finest orator of them all, who was specially eloquent on this reform, made out that squalor would be unknown, slums would disappear, un­employment would cease to be, all wages would rise, poor-houses – bastilles, the people called them – would fall into decay like the feudal castles of the old nobility. A glorious prospect indeed. The Chartists protested : nationalisation of land first, Free Trade afterwards. But the capitalists won the day. Nation­alisation of any description fell into abeyance from 1846 onwards.

Seventy years of experience of Free Trade under capitalism has proved to the present generation of workers that the Chart­ists were quite right in their predictions, the capitalist orator quite wrong.

The attempt of the Chartists to rouse anew the people of England when national revolt, political overthrow and Socialist agitation were going on all over the Continent, failed. From 1848, in spite of all spasmodic efforts, Chartism gradually died down. Its active leaders were never able to secure the political positions to which their great abilities and splendid efforts on behalf of the people entitled them. They were ahead of their time. Even their names, as said, are mostly forgotten. But when, in days to come, the real history of the English people in the nineteenth century is written from the point of view of the people themselves, none will be more honoured than they. For the Chartists were the leaders of the first organised political, forcible and class-conscious revolt against capitalism, profiteering and wage slavery, as a recognised and definite historic development, which grew up in the eighteenth century and has passed from its zenith to its decline within our own day.



1. The immense service rendered by Marx was, that he gave a scientific basis to all this popular revolt; and enabled the wage-earners to meet the bourgeois political economists on their own chosen ground.

Last updated on 7.7.2006