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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 183 Contents

Mark Thomas


Thieves fall in


From Socialist Review, No. 183, February 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Consolidation of the Capitalist State 1800–1850
John Saville
Pluto Press £6.95

In the spring of 1848 a tremendous fear gripped the English middle classes. Would the Chartist demonstration at Kennington, planned to deliver a huge petition to parliament, see the French revolutionary events of that year repeated in England?

In fact, the threat was seen off with a mobilisation by the government of some 97,000 men to prevent any march on Westminster and the Chartists were defeated. This was to be a decisive turning point in the battle between the classes to dominate the new industrial society. It marked the moment when the final obstacles to the free rule of capitalism were removed. The first half of the 19th century saw the state moulded to the interests of the industrial bourgeoisie and the challenge from below overcome, albeit temporarily.

John Saville’s short book, part of a new series from Pluto on A Socialist History of Britain, is an excellent commentary on these events. His theme revolves around two central events, the political reforms of the early 1830s and the defeat of Chartism in 1848. These events were intimately linked.

The significance of the 1832 Reform Act has long been the subject of debate by historians – did it really bring the bourgeoisie to political power? After all, landed aristocrats continued to dominate government posts and civil service jobs for long after.

In fact, the parliamentary reform of 1832 was a compromise, a deal struck by the old landed classes and the emerging bourgeoisie in both their interests. The latter gained a voice in parliament whilst the former retained their monopoly of political office. Three years later local government was reorganised. Control of the local state in the major cities was given to the bourgeoisie. Aristocrats might still rule but the industrial magnates governed.

The alliance of the middle classes and working people in the cause of radical reform was broken to be replaced by a growing consensus between the propertied classes against the threat from below. One vital result was that the revolutionary crisis of 1848 took a markedly different character in Britain from events on the continent. The absence of middle class leadership was perhaps one of the main reasons why Chartism emerged as the first independent political movement of the working class. On the other hand the state was stronger. Middle class support allowed a strengthening of the coercive machinery of the state. The introduction of the first professional police force in 1829 in London was one sign of this.

John Saville hints at the political weaknesses of the Chartist leaders which allowed the state to crush them. Too few were prepared for a real confrontation.

Saville’s book is a rich suggestive discussion of the transformation of the state in the interests of capitalism in this period. Anyone interested in the history of Chartism will find it offers valuable illumination of the broader political and economic context within which the first mass working class movement arose and fought.

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