John Saville


Was a London commune possible ...?

(May 1997)

From Socialist Review, No.208, May 1997.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Mark O’Brien’s review of John Charlton’s book The Chartists (April SR) was mostly a mixture of old-fashioned analysis and some factual inaccuracies. He concentrated on 1848 and I hope your readers will forgive me if I set out the problems in somewhat staccato form.

  1. The demonstration on 10 April, as Charlton very properly indicates, was not intended by the Chartist leadership as a major confrontation with the authorities. Otherwise they would certainly not have chosen an area south of the river, the bridge crossings being very easily defended by the police and troops. 10 April was built up into a crisis point by the government and the press, and the mobilisation of troops, police and special constables was intended to give heart to the owners of property all over the country.
  2. The failure of 10 April had remarkably little impact in the rest of the country and the London movement recovered after a few weeks. The militancy of the Chartists came in the summer months when the rapprochement between the Chartists and the Irish began. But it was a militancy that was limited to certain quite specific areas. When O’Brien writes that, ‘Workers from many of the industrial districts were willing to fight ...’ he should have noted that the regions of previous confrontation – South Wales in 1839-40; the Midlands, Birmingham, and the Potteries in 1842 – were mostly, not entirely but mostly, not involved in physical force demonstrations.
  3. O’Brien writes that there were reports of dissent among the troops in 1848 and that there was a ‘softness’ among the constables. It would be helpful to have the evidence quoted for the alleged dissent among the troops. My own research experience does not confirm it. As for the ‘softness’ among the specials, that was always a problem and there are many examples for the previous years.

    But except in the very early days in Liverpool, 1848 was remarkable for the steadiness of the special constables and this was due to the much more efficient crowd control by the police and the very close liaison between police, specials and the troops. It must be emphasised that there had been violent confrontations for a decade before 1848 and the local and national usage of the coercive forces of the state had become much more efficient as the years went by.
  4. John Charlton very rightly emphasises the two crucial factors in 1848: one was the failure of leadership and this was not least due to the strength, confidence and physical power of the governing elites of the state. Ernest Jones was the first leading figure in the movement to be arrested, in early June, and many followed.

I regret to have to say that O’Brien’s comment that, ‘if the Paris Commune could occur 23 years later with a relatively undeveloped working class, then why not the London Commune of 1848 in Britain with its much higher state of industrialisation?’ can only be described as absurd.


John Saville

Last updated on 4 July 2010