First Published: R.G. (Reg. Groves), The Dotage of the Hammons, Book Reviews, Labour Monthly, November 1930, pp.699-701.
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The Age of the Chartists
By J.L. and Barbara Hammond
Longmans, 1930. 12s. 6d.
J.L. and Barbara Hammond have already earned the gratitude and commendation of all students of working-class history. Their work, set out in the pages of The Village Labourer and The Town Labourer, displayed both insight and ability; both books were finely written and intensely moving; the bitterness of the class struggle was revealed on every page, almost it sometimes seemed in spite of the authors.
They have now written a book dealing with the period of Chartism—1832-1854; a period that should offer even greater opportunities than that covered in previous books. This period, 1832-1854, saw the climax of the whole period that began in the middle of the previous century; they witnessed the decisive triumph of the new system over the old England and the triumph of the new class, the industrialists, over the working class. “The Age of the Chartists” was one of bitter social conflict; an age in which the struggle of the preceding years reached its highest point in the struggle of the Chartists for the political rule of the working class.
How do the Hammonds approach their subject? They set out, in the second chapter of their book, to explain the causes of discontent in the nineteenth century by seeing “what light” can be drawn “from well-known facts about ancient history.” Headed The Remedy of the Ancient World this chapter sings of the “glory-that-was-Greece” and of the “peace-that-was-Rome.” The Hammonds argue that in these empires:
The class struggle was veiled or softened by the moral influence of common possessions; the practice of social fellowship was stimulated by the spectacle of beautiful buildings.
With the wholly misleading character of this plea and the obscuring of the real character of Roman-Grecian civilisation, we have not the space to deal fully: perhaps by re-adapting it to our own time we can estimate it at its true worth. It is as though some future historian should write of our own time:
The student of English history may well wonder at the tranquillity of the English political situation during the years 1918-1930.
We fancy the explanation of this is to be found in the many cultural compensations enjoyed in common by rich and poor. The poor man might starve, but he and his children could still gaze with wonder and delight at Bush House, Euston Station and the Albert Memorial. As times grew more difficult he could still, equally with the rich, find solace in the museums, the palatial public lavatories and luxurious Corner Houses of London.
Ridiculous? Yes, but no more so than the contention of the Hammonds. They set out to show that for the “hard, distasteful, and monotonous toil” that has fallen to the lot of the vast majority of the people, all through the ages, “the ancient world offered one consolation,” that of common cultural possession and “the world of the Industrial Revolution another,” the doctrine of Samuel Smiles. The remedy of the new world, that of individual opportunity, did not satisfy the people: they needed amusements, education, music, beautiful buildings and failing to get them, exhibited strong discontent. The Hammonds prefer the remedy of Greece and Rome and put the question as though the capitalists had a choice and chose wrongly. Nowhere does it seem to occur to the Hammonds that there was no choice in either case: the change in the forms of expenditure (which were forms of re-investment out of surplus) were inevitable to the development of the industrial system. To talk of the development of art in Greece as part of a “common life” is to ignore the conditions in the ancient world; in these things the rich found a way, the only way for them of expending their surplus; in the industrial revolution it was needed for developing industry. Why Capitalism was forced to develop discontent and why that discontent intensifies they do not ask.
The book therefore suffers from carrying an untenable thesis: the material presented is written with a view to driving home the peculiarly unreal contention of the authors. Their method of approaching and dealing with the period makes the great movements, the outlook of the workers, the deep anger and discontent, part of some ethical problem and, consequently, meaningless; while the book ceases to be a living work and becomes a mere compilation of Blue-Book matter, plus the philosophy of R.H. Tawny and of Dr. Bridges, and enlivened by the excellent literary style of the Hammonds.
Nowhere does their failure to relate their material to the class struggle come out so manifestly as in the section on the Churches. The vast majority of the church “reformers,” especially the Christian Social Movement, were mainly driven by the power of revolutionary ideas over the workers. The workman spent his leisure in the Chartist or Owenite halls or attending Chartist meetings; his reading consisted, in the main, of Chartist and radical papers; because of this, he began to understand the class character of the new society and of its tools, the churches, the existing educational schemes, and the “moral” reform movements. Where Chartism was strongest, all efforts of the various dissenting sects, Methodist, Wesleyan, and Congregationalists, were least successful. Lancashire was an example of this. “Visit,” said one writer of Manchester in 1840, “the churches, and chapels, of this great town; look around at the various congregations, richly and gaily dressed … and say how many of the real horny-handed workmen will be found among the group.” Charles Kingsley, the Christian “Socialist,” said:
The devil has got the best long ago, for the cream and pith of working intellect is almost exclusively self-educated and therefore also infidel.
The ruling class began to see the importance of the working class “receiving in school or in places of worship that religious instruction that is necessary for knitting together the inhabitants and classes of a great country,” and to this end, to the task of winning the workers away from revolutionary ideas, the reformers set themselves; some secured a “softening” of the most glaring examples of the class character of Church life and doctrine; others tackled education and issued instructive periodicals; others tinged their Christianity with Socialism in order to secure the confidence of the workers. Mechanics’ Halls, Schools, Clubs, popular magazines sprang up in great numbers: not due to the sudden conversion of the owning class to “the remedy of the ancient world,” but due to their fear of a class-conscious working class.
The chapter on The Revolt is, significantly enough, one of the shortest in the book: for further material on Chartism we are referred to the works: of West, Hovell, and Dolleans! Here the Hammonds estimate that the significance of the struggles of the Chartist period is that “the English poor, found in these agitations an opportunity of protesting against the place they occupied in the raw industrial settlements spreading over the North and the Midlands” and because
The rulers of this new society had forgotten that if you wish to satisfy a people you must satisfy its imagination: the leaders of revolt knew that if you want to rouse a people you must rouse its imagination. The Chartist movement, like the Owenite movement, was imagination in action.
Of Chartism’s place as a class movement in our history and of its influence upon the practice and theory of English and International Socialism, there is nothing. The greatest decade in our history becomes a movement of the people for brighter Sundays, better education, and for common enjoyment, with the rich, of music, architecture, and painting. The Chartists, according to the Hammonds’ view, set out on the road that led to the Whitechapel Art Gallery; how disappointed the Hammonds will be to learn that its experiences were drawn upon by Marx and Engels, by the International Labour Movement, and by the Bolshevists; that Chartism was the beginning of a struggle that is to-day reaching its goal all over the world—the struggle of the working class for political power.
Within these limits enough of the Hammonds’ old genius spasmodically glimmers to make their new book an interesting addition to the existing material on the period. The chapters dealing with the new towns, their government, sanitation and housing; the chapter on the Poor Law Act of 1834 the chapter on Education with its details of the extent and nature of education in that period, all help to fill in some of the many gaps in our knowledge of the England of the Chartists.
The literature of the revolutionary movement is still so deficient that even from this book we can wrest some information for the study of this important epoch in our history.
Last updated: 11 March 2010