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Reg Groves

Chartism And The Present Day:

The Illusion Of Reformism

(January 1929)

First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), Chartism and the Present Day – The Illusion of Reformism, Labour Monthly, January 1929, pp.47-56.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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“War to the palaces, peace to the cottages – that is a battle cry of terror which may come to resound through our own country. Let the wealthy beware.” – (The Times, June 1844)

On all sides the seriousness of Britain’s industrial position is recognised. The easy optimism of the post-war years has given way to feverish endeavours to remedy a state of affairs more serious than anything previously experienced by British capitalism. The heavy exporting industries (on which British capitalism was built), the Liberal Industrial Report admits “may be permanently threatened.” Mr. Ben Turner, fresh from the Industrial Peace Conferences which are to “revive British industry,” gloomily remarks that:–

Trade is really in a rocky condition and one sometimes wonders whether there will be that trade revival so often spoken about in recent months – Daily Herald, September 18, 1928.

The Trade Union Bill and the Mond-Turner Conferences are both unmistakable signs that the future is to be a future of mass unemployment, of continual wage-cuts – a future of increasing misery and degradation for the working class. The past seven years have seen the wage-bill of the workers reduced by some £5,000 million, hours worked in industry increased some 211 millions a year, speeding up in the principal industries and attacks on the political rights of the working-class. The decline in production continues, and unemployment, in spite of “harvesting” schemes and Baldwin’s appeals, is close on two millions. The alternative faces the working class – Capitalism with increasing misery and world war or the working-class conquest of power, a workers’ dictatorship which alone offers the real way to reconstruction and to a permanent raising of the miserable standards of the British proletariat.

The Reformist leadership is openly proclaiming its allegiance to capitalism and through a confused mass of “living wage” proposals, of programmes “mainly devoted to the expansion of industry and trade,” of fantastic utopias built amid motor car and bicycle factories, one theory is gradually becoming comparatively coherent and is gaining support from “Rights,” “Centrists” and “Lefts.” From Phillips Price to Citrine, the Reformists are hailing the advent of the “Second Industrial Revolution.” The theoreticians of the Second International are outdoing John the Baptist in their proclamation of the coming “new era,” of a “Rationalised,” “Scientific,” “Prosperity for all” Capitalism. Gone is the haunting fear (too often confirmed by facts!) that perhaps the Communists were right. Gone is the danger of civil war. Capitalism is saved and with the salvation of capitalism lies the salvation of a weakening Reformism. Mr. Snowden is a prominent advocate of this theory. As far back as 1926 (on the eve of the attack on the miners) Mr. Snowden was stating that

He did not agree with the statement of some of his Socialist friends that the capitalist system was obviously breaking down. He believed that we were to-day in a position very much like the industrial revolution that took place in this country about 120 years ago. – Daily Herald, April 17, 1926.

In defending Mondism, Mr. Walter Citrine at Swansea declared:–

The position of the workers in the post-war period, the effect of that period, the long-continued depression, particularly in the basic industries, have created something which in the view of eminent economists may be compared with the industrial revolution of the last part of the eighteenth century. We may be even now in the throes of a revolution such as that. – TUC Report, p.409. [Our emphasis]

The object of this propaganda is clear. By this means mass unemployment, wage cuts, and anti-trade unionism are justified and explained. All the 2½ per cent. “voluntary sacrifices,” the speeding up and mass dismissals, the starvation in the industrial areas, are only a “necessary” and natural part of the transition to the “new era” of national prosperity, in the same way as the misery and degradation of the early nineteenth century was followed by the Victorian era of industrial peace and prosperity.

There is in this picture of suffering as the prelude to the “new era” an element of truth (conveniently ignored by the reformists) in so far as the breakdown of capitalism and the consequent misery heralds the rise of a new class to power. In the days of the first industrial revolution it was the industrial bourgeoisie that was rising to power; to-day it is the industrial proletariat.

Upon the basis of their belief that to-day we “are in the throes” of a second industrial revolution the Reformists calculate that the new era of rationalism and international agreements (in the place of wars!) will smother the revolutionary movement of to-day as the Victorian era smothered the revolutionary movement which sprang from the starving workers of early capitalism. An examination of this belief is necessary before an estimation of its value can be given and its real nature revealed. Three points call for special attention.

  1. The nature of the revolutionary movement of the early nineteenth century; its rise and decline.
  2. The possibility of a revival of British capitalism through Rationalisation.
  3. A comparison between the revolutionary movement of the first industrial revolution and the movement of today.

The Industrial Revolution and the Workers

The revolt of the workers in the early nineteenth century developed and gained strength as capitalism developed and strengthened. The genesis of the capitalist system was also the genesis of the modern working-class movement and the effect of the vast changes that took place in the last quarter of the eighteenth century was seen most clearly in the rising working-class move-ment. The workers’ revolt developed from the Luddite movement, the first blind instinctive outburst against capitalism typified for the workers by the machine, through early trade unionism, through political societies, “Jacobin” clubs and secret conspiracies; taking its form from the circumstances in which it arose, first struggling against the ruthless introduction of machinery, then against anti-trade union legislation; against child labour in factory and mine; against the barbarity of the new Poor Law; struggling for Trade Union rights, for shorter hours and for an untaxed Press. So through the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, often in alliance with the middle class and nearly always led by middle-class leaders, the proletariat of England struggled sectionally against the exploitation and misery of industrial capitalism. The struggle advanced to a higher plane when the industrialists and the workers unitedly swept into effect the Reform Bill of 1832.

The achievement of a controlling part in the guidance of national affairs satisfied the middle classes; with the vote extended to them they elected their own government and ruth-lessly disowning their former allies the workers, and even many radical bodies, they proceeded to break up the remaining obstacles to successful capitalist development.

The first effects of the Reformed Parliament fell heavily on the working class. A new Poor Law Act was introduced, framed ostensibly to remedy the abuses of the old system, but in reality a terrible attack on the masses of workers who, unable to gain a livelihood under the new system, were dependent for their existence on a starvation rate of relief or on degradations of the workhouse. The real reason for the new Bill was that the old laws of settlement. (i.e. paupers confined to home district, &c.) made impossible the complete mobility of labour needed by the growing industrial system, and that the low wages of the hand-loom weavers were supplemented by relief enabling them to compete with the new factories. Its chief clause was the one by which, according to Dr. Kay, the workhouses were “made as like, prisons as possible” (Hansard, vol.xli, p.1014). Engels has graphically described the horrors of the Poor Law system and an examination of the various Commissions investigating during that part of the century completes the picture of misery and degradation. “They have built the wretched union gaols where King Starvation reigns supreme,” declared M. Harcourt, a contemporary poet in 1837, whose poetry, like most of the literature of the day, is permeated with indignation.

This Act and the subsequent industrial depression that spread like a plague from town to town added to the fury of the working class. From the sea of misery, handloom weavers, proletarians and landworkers began to seek ways of ending their misery ...: Out of their discontent arose two great movements, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and the Chartist Movement.

The “Grand National” and Chartism

The GNCTU, formed by Owen in 1834 from the wreckage of previous attempts on the same lines, rapidly gained strength and in less than a month had a membership of over half-a-million – unprecedented in the whole history of Trade Unionism. Its life was short. Whilst Owen dreamed of the millennium, the left-wing of the Executive, Smith and Morrison, declared the Union to represent the new form of government and mobilised the workers for action. The reply of the employers was crushing. Lock-outs were resorted to in order to starve the workers into abandoning the Union. The Government announced a new Bill to make such a Union illegal and in the meantime struck relentlessly at the GNCTU by conviction and barbarous sentences. Defeat followed defeat, funds began to show serious signs of depletion, and for a few months the Union’s fate hung in the balance. A rally might have saved it, but Owen crushed the hopes that many entertained by dismissing the two men, Smith and Morrison, who showed the ability to lead the movement to victory. Temporarily the attempt to unite the workers on the industrial field had been defeated. The workers fell back into their old state – fighting on different fronts with different objects. A party was needed to unite the whole working class for the struggle, and its formation was not long delayed. All over England working-men’s associations and clubs sprang up with great rapidity, with their membership open only “to members of the industrious classes.” (Radicals, middle-class reformers and others were admitted in some cases to honorary membership.) The issuing of the Charter provided the means to unity. On the slogan of “The Charter and nothing but the Charter,” the hosts of workers’ political organisations became united. The agitation for the “Charter,” universal suffrage and electoral reforms speedily embodied within itself the struggle for an untaxed Press (which in practice then meant a workers’ Press) for Trade Unions rights, for better conditions, for a repeal of the new Poor Law and gathering up these issues as an independent revolutionary movement the proletariat advanced against capitalism itself. Thus, the rising proletarian movement engendered by the first industrial revolution culminated in Chartism, the first class party of the workers which for a decade thrust the issue of class power to the front and shook the rising capitalist system to its foundations.

Between 1838 and 1842, the great years of Chartism, the Chartists passed from stage to stage of the workers’ struggle. Parliamentary Petition was followed by an attempted general strike, by propaganda to the troops, by mass demonstrations, by international organisations and by armed revolts. The temper of the workers was clearly in favour of revolution. In Birmingham, for instance, in July, 1839, the workers carried on street fighting for nearly a week with both police and military, only being disarmed in the end by the “centrists” of Chartism. In Kent, the land workers revolted and, arming, attacked Canterbury in 1838. The Newport rising, two years later, and the fights all over England against both police and military show clearly that the workers were ready for civil war, and had the mass been moulded together for a national struggle capitalism would have reaped as the fruits of the first industrial revolution a workers’ revolution. Yet Chartism failed and its disappearance in 1853 saw the disappearance of the revolutionary movement for nearly half-a-century. What was the reason for this collapse?

The Cause of Chartist Decline

The main reason is to be found in the actual conditions that created Chartism. The rising capitalist system with the accession of the industrialists to power gradually eased the conditions of the workers and diminished the antagonism between themselves and the industrial workers who were the only section of the movement that could lead it to a successful conclusion. The three greatest periods of the agitation, 1838, 1842 and 1848 reveal only too clearly the effects of the expansion of capitalism. After the mass movement of 1838 which culminated in 1840 in the Newport rising and the imprisonment of over 500 prominent Chartists, the movement under the effects of the increasingly severe industrial depression revived quickly, and 1842 saw, the second national petition with over three million signatures and the mass strike of August for the Charter. This mass strike revealed to the owning class, which up to then had been divided, the real strength Chartism. The Times of August 12, 1842, said that never before had Chartism shown its organisation so powerfully. The owning class united, defeated the strike and with the defeat of the strike the decline of Chartism commenced. The third revival in 1848, a reflection of the crisis of 1847, was short and revealed openly the weakness and internal disintegration of the movement. From that collapse it never recovered.

The extent of capitalist development can be gauged from the following facts. The value of exports for the years 1836-41 averaged £50,012,994; in 1842 it fell to £47,634,623, in 1843 it was £52,279,709; in 1843 it rose to £460,111,082, and after the crisis of 1847 rose steadily until in 1855 it reache £98,933,781. Between 1842 and 1845 542 new factories were built. The retail price of foodstuffs began to fall, wages began to rise. The following wage figures from Bowley’s Wages in the Nineteenth Century, illustrates this. The average wages figures for the London artisans in 1833 was 28s.0d.; in 1867 it was 36s.0d. For town labourers in 1833 it was 14s.0d.; in 1867 it was 20s. Agricultural labourers wages during this period rose from 10s.6d to 14s.0d. Between 1842-48 average wage increases of nine grades of labour in the ironworks of South Wales were 49 per cent. The building trades between 1839-1849 increased their wage by 6 per cent., and the glassworkers by 15 per cent. Pauperism decreased; thus in 1846-47 percentage in receipt of Poor Law relief was 10.1; in 1852 it was 4.8. Conditions in the factories were investigated by several Acts passed between 1842 and 1848. The new Poor Law Act was partly remedied in 1846-47. The cotton workers’ wages began to rise slowly after 1842. The woollen hand-loom weavers, who were a tremendous tower of strength to Chartism, were slowly exterminated by sheer starvation and their numbers declined enormously between 1838 and 1850. Thus a revival of Chartism was undermined by the steady improvement of conditions that set in after 1842.

“Revival” or Revolution

A serious examination of the actual nature of the “depression” of to-day will show that the decline thus manifested so strikingly since the war is a decline of capitalism itself and not a production “crisis” similar to those of the Chartist period. The belief that a similar era of prosperity can be embarked on by modern capitalism as the period that capitalism enjoyed after the Chartist epoch is not borne out by the facts. Then Britain enjoyed a monopolist position, had unlimited prospects of expansion and was faced with little or no competition abroad. To-day newer fresher competitors are in the field, the markets of the world are diminishing and British capitalism, dependent as it is on its exporting industries, is facing a situation from which there is no escape. So far, the attempt to meet the changed situation has consisted entirely of wage-cuts, longer hours and mass dismissals. New Reformism seeking an alternative to the class struggle and its culmination in the overthrow of capitalism is urging rationalisation, as in Germany and America, to save capitalism and at the same time themselves. To discuss the possibility of rationalisation is to tread on familiar ground and although the impossibility of rationalisation à la Germany in this country is quite clear yet, as some still find reasons for this possibility, it is necessary to briefly state the reasons why such a process is impossible. R.P. Dutt in his Socialism and the Living Wage states clearly one reason why technical reorganisation has been able to take place in France (to a limited extent), Germany (assisted by foreign capital), and America and not in Britain. The reason, Dutt states:–

Lies in the older historic growth of British capitalism. The priority which was once an advantage is to-day a handicap. The newer capitalist countries were able to start later and more rapidly with a more modern technique and a relatively more planned organisation. The new colonies outside Europe were free from feudal remains. In France and Germany the semi-revolutionary effects of war and inflation cleared the ground for reconstruction. On the other hand British capitalism is tied and fettered with an accumulation and network of individualist, sectional and vested rights and interests. In its earlier days capitalism would have struck these obstacles out of its path as the rights of the landholders were overridden by the advancing railways. To-day British capitalism is too enfeebled to take a strong line; the bourgeoisie is no longer an advancing class but is menaced by the advance of the proletariat; the whole social and political situation is too delicate for any endangering of the social fabric and every supporter of the existing order, however reactionary and parasitic, has to be preserved ... only the working class dictatorship can reorganise British industry. (pp.60-61)

What then is the meaning of the tremendous advances made in productive power? Far from marking a revival of capitalism these advances mark an intensification of the struggle for markets, worsening of the workers’ conditions on a world scale and the next world war.

The chief difference between the workers’ movement of the early nineteenth century and that of to-day is the difference of an epoch of struggle and growth. This is illustrated most strikingly by the Chartist general strike of 1842 and the general strike of May, 1926. Then the strike was only concentrated in the textile areas of the North; then only a few hundred thousand workers took part in the strike. In May, 1926, 4½ million workers answered the call and stood solid defying the State and its troops, tanks and police persecutions. The discipline was perfect, the solidarity unshakable. After the defeat of the Chartist mass strike the decline of the revolutionary movement commenced, but to-day it is precisely May, 1926, that marks the turning point in the struggle for the leadership of the British workers. Already the broken threads of proletarian solidarity are being joined and new weapons of struggle are being forged as the movement gathering its strength, slowly leaves Reformism behind and gathers under the banner of social revolution. With the pressure of the capitalist offensive making itself felt increasingly, the working class is slowly gathering its forces for the future mass struggles. Sidney Webb has declared that British Socialism began not with Marx but with Owen and that Owen’s Utopianism is the real basis of British Socialism – the class war is an alien doctrine. The Chartist movement showed in embryo that the development of the class-struggle brings a corresponding discarding of Owenism and an approach to Marxism. In the same way the contemporary British working class will through defeat and victory, in the day-to-day struggle, and awakened to consciousness by the Communist Party, learn the lessons of Chartism and march forward to the overthrow of capitalism.

Chartism, long dead and buried by Reformists and capitalists alike, has risen in a stronger, clearer and more powerful form. The “Second Industrial Revolution” which in reality is the increasing socialisation of the methods of production, is the revolutionisation of the methods of production and consequently the revolutionisa-tion of the whole system of society; in so far as it indicates the process taking place, and emphasises the differences with the first industrial revolution, it can only mean the growth of the revolutionary forces in Britain. Engels points this out in connection with the first industrial revolution saying, “Here in Britain the class struggles were more virulent during the period of the develop-ment of big industry ... It is precisely the revolutionisation of time-honoured conditions which revolutionises people’s brains” (Engel’s letter to Sorge, December 3rd, 1892; our italics). The process now taking place is the “revolutionisation of time-honoured conditions” and the effect is to be seen in the developing class-struggle of the British workers.

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