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The Class Leadership of Chartism

(April 1929)

First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), The Class Leadership of Chartism, Labour Monthly, April 1929, pp.240-244.
Editing, proofing & HTML markup: Ted Crawford and D. Walters in 2009 for the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line.
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In the article, Chartism and the Present Day,” which appeared in the January issue of the Labour Monthly, an explanation was given of the causes of Chartism’s decline. “The main reason,” it was stated, “is to be found in the actual conditions that created Chartism.” In particular, the expansion of production and trade which followed on the depression of the ’thirties and ’forties diminished the antagonisms between the proletariat and the capitalists. This conclusion does not obviate the need for further analysis of the conditions determining the decline of Chartism. To isolate one single part of a developing situation, to explain the closely connected causes and effects by this single part of the whole, is to fail to understand the interaction of the various closely connected factors which operate to produce a given result.

The importance of the class divisions within the Chartist ranks; the consequent difference in aims and outlook of the divided forces; this point is of considerable importance. The purpose of this short article is to examine the various groups contending within the movement for its leadership in the light of these class divisions, always bearing in mind that this must be regarded as supplementary to the article mentioned above. An examination of this character is not complete without reference to the part played by Marx and Engels in the Chartist struggles and their attitude towards the different groups.

Generally, the Chartist leadership is divided into a “moral force” group (Lovett, Hetherington, Collins, &c.) and “physical force” group, in which is loosely included O’Connor, Cooper, Harney, Taylor and a host of others. Such a division obscures the real issue, which lies between a “centrist” group and a “left wing” group. The “moral force” group, who formed and dominated the London Workingmen’s Association, were, as the movement gathered itself for the struggle speedily outstripped, and became a negligible factor in the big struggles of Chartism. Of the “Centrist” group, O’Connor is the most representative and outstanding figure; of the “left wing” group, Harney is the most advanced; an examination of the policies and significance of these two men will afford a basis for an understanding of the division between these two groups.

Feargus O’Connor led the movement into its greatest struggles and into its greatest defeats. O’Connor’s failures and treachery are usually explained as being due to his personal character; thus Postgate argues that “vanity and love of popularity misled him.” (LRD Syllabus, No.7) The roots of O’Connor’s failures lie deeper than mere personal faults. O’Connor came to the British working class from Ireland, a purely agrarian country. His rapid accession to the leadership of the movement was due to the fact that he personified and voiced the demands of the non-proletarian elements in the movement – the handloom weavers and similar sections, who, powerful in numbers, looked to the Chartist movement to lead them, not toward the conquest of capitalism but backwards to the pre-capitalist days; their slogan was “back to the land and life of our forebears.” They hated capitalism but could not understand it, and consequently fought hopelessly and blindly. They were, in a word, reactionary in outlook and uncertain in struggle. In this lies the explanation of O’Connor’s vacillations; of his land settlement schemes; of his betrayal of the Welsh insurrection. In this lies the cause of the spasmodic and uneven nature of the Chartist struggles. As we shall see later, the failure to recognise the nature and roots of O’Connorism led final disaster for Chartism.

George Julian Harney was born amid the squalor and misery of the town. He knew no other system but capitalism, and so was far in advance of the O’Connorites in outlook. Imprisoned for selling unstamped newspapers at the age of seventeen, in his early twenties he broke definitely with the London Workingmen’s Association, and formed the London Democratic Association, which recruiting from the East End proletariat, secured within a short time a membership of 3,000 (compared to LWA’s 400). In a letter to the Northern Star (March 24, 1839) he stated his reasons for this step. He scoffed at the idea that “moral force” and “education” were weapons of any value in the immediate struggle, and asserted that the emancipation of the workers could only be achieved by their own efforts. His journal, The London Democrat, displays both the fire and vigour of the rising proletariat and the theoretical understanding of the nature of capitalism, and the rôle of the working class that later was clarified and developed by Marx and Engels. Any suggestion of an alliance with the middle classes he attacked vigorously. Harney showed his appreciation of the rôle of the middle class in the following passage:–

You see now through the delusions of your enemies. Nearly nine years of “liberal” government have taught you the blessings of middle class sway, blessings exemplified in “bastilles” and “water gruel,” in “separation” and “starvation” [Harney is referring the effects of the New Poor Law Act on the conditions in the workhouses]; in the cells of silent horror and the chains of transportation, in the universal misery of yourselves and the universal profligacy of your oppressors. (London Democrat, April 20, 1839.)

Seeing clearly the economic roots of the workers’ support for the Charter, on that his journal was equally emphatic:–

Unless the “People’s Charter” is followed by a measure equalise the condition of all, the producing classes will still be oppressed. (Ibid., April 13, 1839.)

In the issue of May 4 1839, Harney pointed out clearly that the General Strike, then being advocated as a peaceful method of carrying the Charter, would, if carried through, only end in Civil war, and for this preparation was necessary.

But Harney and his group, in the early years of the movement, were, like many others, under the powerful influence of O’Connor. O’Connor is an example of a certain type of “centrist” in action “Centrism” promises force (always with the proviso “if necessary”); “centrism” appears to advocate mass action, leads the workers almost to the point of struggle, and then falls back into confusion and defeat.

This rôle O’Connor played very successfully, as the history of Chartism tragically shows, right up to the April demonstration of 1848, when at last to the whole working class his true political rôle was revealed in the ignominious surrender on Kennington Common. But by 1848 the real driving force of Chartism was spent. The industrial proletariat was growing less and less inclined to follow a revolutionary leadership (for the reasons for this see the previous article already referred to); the failure of Harney, Ernest Jones and the other left wing members to come forward as an independent force, based on the proletarian elements in the movement, whilst the whole working class was united in its determination to secure their political and economic rights, paved the array to the disaster of April 10, 1848, and the subsequent disappearance of Chartism. The task of effecting the union of communism with Chartism (which would have decisively undermined O’Connor’s position) was not seen in its right perspective. As a result, Chartism merely paved the way to the ensuing period of blossoming reformism, when – inside the framework of an expanding capitalism, with the working class “educated,” i.e., educated in capitalist ideas and policy, with religion holding its sway over the industrial areas – the owning class could safely grant gradually the principal points of the Charter which they dared not do in the days of Chartism.

In discussing the Chartist movement, nothing helps more to clarify and illustrate the points dealt with than to examine the relations of Marx and Engels to the Chartists. G.J. Harney became acquainted with Engels whilst the latter was in England ... preparing the materials for his book, The Condition of the Working Classes in 1844. How far Harney and the experiences of Chartism influenced Marx and Engels it is difficult to judge. That both owed much to Chartism cannot be denied. But much more clear is the combined influence of struggle and the theories of Marx and Engels on the Chartists. Professor Riazanov’s discovery and publication of the articles of the World League of Revolutionary Communists (first published in English by the Labour Monthly, August 1928) shows Harney as one of the leading members of this league. Even more strikingly is the effect shown in the speeches and writings of Ernest Jones and G.J. Harney. For at a meeting of German Social Democrats, Harney, in the course of his speech, declared:–

The cause of the people in all countries is the same – the cause of labour, enslaved and plundered labour ... The men who create every necessary, every comfort and luxury are themselves steeped in misery. Working men of all countries, are not your grievances; your wrongs, the same? Is not your good cause one and the same also ... the veritable emancipation of the human race. (Northern Star, February 14, 1846 – a year before the publication of the Communist Manifesto.)

Another example, more striking still, is this extract from Harney’s journal, The Red Republican, of July 1850. (Note that by this time the hey-day of Chartism had passed.)

As regards the working men swamping all other classes the answer is simple – other classes have no right to exist. To prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working class preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, is the mission of The Red Republican.

And yet there are still people who maintain that the dictatorship of the proletariat is an alien doctrine!

Ernest Jones in 1851 put forward a Socialist programme which included “Nationalisation of the land, disestablishment of the church, founding of national co-operatives, creation of people’s militia, abolition of army, abolition of capital punishment, right of poor to work or maintenance. Compare this with O’Connor’s advocacy of small-holdings and his declaration:–

I ever have been, and think ever shall be, opposed to the principle of Communism ... I am even opposed to public kitchens, public baking houses and public washhouses. (The Labourer, 1847-48, pp.549 and 157.)

A further example from the writings of Ernest Jones:–

An amalgamation of classes is impossible ... these two portions of the community must be separated distinctly, dividedly and openly, from each other, CLASS AGAINST CLASS. All other mode of procedure is mere moonshine. (Notes to the People, 1850, p.342.)

Thus are the theoreticians of capitalism answered when they cry, “alien to British tradition are the theories of Bolshevism.” In the struggles of the Chartists is to be found the answer also to those who maintain that the British working class was, is, and always will be, passive, God-fearing and constitutional. Chartism substituted class for community, mass struggle for constitutional, the General Strike and armed revolt for parliamentary petition, and on the basis of the developing struggle, Embryonic Marxism for Owenism.

The work of the proletarian group, who were precisely the group that had some scientific theory to guide them, deserves special study to-day; the failure of this group ruthlessly to expose and uproot “centrism” and take an independent line should be burnt into the consciousness of the contemporary revolutionary movement.

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