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Henry Collins

The Chartist Convention

(February 1961)

From Socialist Review, February 1961.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 270–73.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“Your demand is for Universal Suffrage ... a right
of which no human power can justly deprive you ...
and which you must regain at any risk – peaceably,
if you may, forcibly if you must.”

From the first manifesto of the Chartist Convention,
published in the Charter, February 17, 1839.

On February 4, 1839, fifty-three delegates to the General Convention of the Industrious Classes met at the British Coffee House, Cockspur Street, Charing Cross. Thirteen were from the middle class – magistrates, editors, clergymen, doctors – and the remainder were described by their first secretary as “shop-keepers, tradesmen and journeymen.” The working class element was not very conspicuous in this gathering, yet it began the organisation of Chartism as a national movement and Chartism has rightly the called the first independent political movement of the working class in history.

The first Chartist Convention, as the body came to be called, was dominated by London and Birmingham, both centres of small handicraft, not factory production. The two cities were also the standards of those days, prosperous. The artisans and petty producers who made up such a strong element in Chartism, especially in its early months, were discontented men. The reform Act of 1832 had enfranchised the shopkeepers and business men, given the mass of the people nothing. The Poor Law Reform of 1824 with its brutal workhouse test outraged the conscience of every decent person in the country. The economic crisis, which struck Britain in the Spring of 1837 and lasted for over two years, increased the demand for reform among the huge unrepresented majority of the people.

But the London and Birmingham artisans were not the revolutionaries. The London Working-Men’s Association, founded in June, 1836, aimed at attracting the “intelligent and influential portion of the working classes.” It sought to promote the cause of progress through education, discussion and “moral force.” Its leader was William Lovett, a joiner whose social ideas derived from Robert Owen while his politics were strongly influenced by Francis Place. The Birmingham Political Union, under the rich banker, Thomas Attwood, saw salvation through currency reform based on enfranchisement of an enlightened working class.

Mass Movement

But the first Chartist Convention contained other elements as well. Delegates had been elected at mass meetings of 300,000 in Manchester, 150,000 in Glasgow and 70,000 in Newcastle. Here the handloom weavers, ruined and starving through competition from the power looms, miners and factory workers, predominated. Their spokesman was Fergus O’Connor, an Irishman, revolutionary and anti-Socialist. He was alive to the evils of industrial capitalism and the factory system. But he saw the solution in terms of a land reform which would cover the country with prosperous smallholdings. He advocated insurrection in principle while opposing it in practice.

Also represented at the Convention was a small but vigorous socialist wing led by Bronterre O’Brien, with George Julian Harney as a promising young recruit. It was private property, said Bronterre, particularly in, land, banks and utilities, which lay at the root of poverty and exploitation. The power of the bourgeoisie had been established, in England and France, through social revolution. A new revolution would establish the power of the workers and put an end to oppression and inequality. In his theories of exploitation, class struggle and historical development, Bronterre anticipated some of Marx’s most important conclusions. But he failed to develop a comprehensive analysis of capitalism or of the emergence of a proletariat. In the decline of Chartism, after 1848, he took to repeating himself and led his small sect into the political wilderness.

Weakness in Chartism

Socially heterogeneous, theoretically immature and politically vacillating, Chartism was nevertheless a remarkable achievement. In no other country was there an independent working class movement, and on the Continent of Europe, while socialist thinkers penned penetrating criticism of capitalist society, mass movements of the people remained tied to the left wing of bourgeois radicalism. The Chartists, by contrast, led a movement of workers not only separate from the bourgeois radicals but in opposition to them.

On the day the first Chartist Convention met the Anti Corn Law League began its first national conference. The Chartists had to define their attitude to this vehicle of Manchester liberalism and they did so. On February 12 the Convention unanimously [adopted] a resolution, moved by Bronterre O’Brien, which declared that “the people’s undivided attention” must be given to the campaign for the People’s Charter, “being also convinced that the present agitation for a repeal of the Corn Laws was intended and does actually tend to divert the working classes from that permanent object; and being further of opinion that such an unconditional repeal as would alone be likely to receive the sanction of the Anti Corn Law agitators, would be rather injurious than otherwise to the interests of the poorer classes.” While political power remained the hands of their enemies, in fact, neither free trade nor protection would bring any lasting benefit to the workers, and though, on occasions, local groups of Chartists were inveigled into supporting Corn Law Repeal as a palliative, the movement as a whole retained its independence of and hostility to the radical, Benthamite, free trading middle class.

National Petition

The main efforts of the Chartists went into collecting signatures for the National Petition, which demanded universal male suffrage and related democratic reforms. Within the Convention, Harney asked for a decision as to what action would be taken if Parliament rejected the Petition. The majority, consisting largely of “moral force” Chartists, refused to allow the question to be considered. But among Chartist supporters in the country there was intense discussion and divided views. Some argued for a run on the banks, but they had no money. Others called for a general strike, but there were few trade unionists. Yet others advocated armed uprising, but though there was a scattering of pikes here and muskets there, few believed seriously in its chances of success.


In May the Convention moved to Birmingham. Faced with increasing government provocation it issued a manifesto stressing the constitutional and legal aims of the movement.

“Aware of our position,” it went on, “your oppressors are moving heaven and earth to bring us into collision with the enemy. They are pouring spies and traitors into your ranks, in order to seduce the unwary into illegal practices ... Our advice is that YOU RIGIDLY OBEY THE LAW; but at the same time be prepared to make your oppressors likeways obey it. Be upon your guard against spies or madmen, who would urge you to illegal practices, but at the same time bear in mind that you have the same right to arm that your enemies have ... Parade not your arms at public meetings but keep them bright and ready at home.”

Persecution and Arrest

In July there was a wave of arrests. Meetings were prohibited. A body of police was brought down from London to break up a meeting in the Birmingham Bull Ring. The workers drove the police out of the Ring and it took troops to restore the government’s authority. On July 5 Lovett, for all his moderation and “moral force” was arrested. A week later the Petition, with over one and a quarter million signatures, was rejected by 235 votes to 46. Now the Convention had to act or dissolve. There was no hope, it was soon decided, of redress from the existing House of Commons. But the workers were powerless to elect another. The Convention therefore decided “that the people should work no longer after the 12th of August next, unless the power of voting for Members of Parliament to enable them to protect their labour and their rights is previously given and guaranteed to them.”

New Stage and Development

Propaganda went out for a “Sacred Month “ which was to inaugurate the rule of the people. But it soon became obvious that there would be no adequate response. The workers were not strongly organised and the Chartists had neglected to build up their strength in such unions as there were. On August 5 the Convention, from which the right wing had mainly withdrawn, abandoned the “Sacred Month “ and called, instead, for a token strike of “one, two or three days.” They appealed, belatedly, to the “united trades” for help. But even a token strike was beyond their powers and on September 6 the Convention, confessing defeat, decided to dissolve.

Labour History

This ended the first phase of Chartism. It did not destroy the movement, which came back, stronger than ever, during the “Plug Riots” of 1842. Finally, the Chartist movement was defeated in 1848, and though it took another ten years to die it was never again a serious force. But the working class movement regrouped, assumed new forms and came back again into the struggle.

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Last updated: 21 June 2014