The Fight For a Workers’ Parliament: The Revolutionary Chartists

Submitted by AWL on 16 May, 2008 - 11:31 Author: Chris Ford

The General Convention of the Industrious Classes opened in London on 4 February 1839, riding high on a wave of popular unrest and unparalleled mass mobilisations. London Democrat William Cardo wrote that the “Parliament of the House of Lords and Commons would soon be assembled… and at the same time another Parliament, the People’s Parliament would assemble… there would be the spirit of the English people”. Historians may point to the moderate artisans of the London Working Men’s Association as the authors of the Charter, or the middle-class radicals of the Birmingham Political Union as having proposed the Convention. But it was not their achievement.

The General Convention was the first elected body of the disenfranchised working class. It has been criticised for its inadequacies, but its achievements at this historic moment should not be undervalued, as the embodiment of a massive and energetic wave of workers’ self-organisation encompassing an array of country-wide local associations and organisations. These bodies, which elected their delegates through mass meetings, which often workers attended armed as a display of force, created a counter-power; in the eyes of many the Convention held more legitimacy than any other institution in England at the time. The Convention’s delegates adopted the title “MC” — Member of the Convention! — to counter the MPs of the parliament of the upper classes.

The London Democratic Association could count on three convention delegates as their own: William Cardo for Marylebone, Harney for Derby, Newcastle and Norwich, and Neesom from Bristol. The main representatives of London came from the London Working Men’s Association who manoeuvred like modern labour bureaucrats to obtain a monopoly over London representation. The LDA viewed the Convention as a potential revolutionary assembly on a collision course with the Government. As the elected assembly of the people they expected it to prepare for the actions required in such a showdown.

In the Convention the LDA allied with physical force revolutionaries, such as Richard Marsden, Peter Murray M’Douall and Dr Taylor. On the right, were the advocates of “moral force”, the LWMA leaders such as Lovett and middle class Radicals such as the banker Thomas Atwood who believed the “interests of masters and men are in fact one”. They saw the Convention’s role as organising presentation of the petition and to stick to legal means only.

The most influential body in the Convention was the centre — Feargus O’Connor and Bronterre O’Brien. O’Connor was already the best known, most influential leader of the movement, if not yet within the Convention itself. The policy of the centre was of a self-limiting revolution. They believed they could use intimidation of the mass movement to force reform — along the lines of the agitation for the Reform Bill of 1832. But times had changed, and the workers could be as effective as the middle class was in 1832. By the time the Convention met these differences over strategies had already split Chartism.

The red flag of defiance

Harney believed the House of Commons would reject the People’s Charter; he argued the debate over how many signatures were on the petition was superfluous. Harbet demanded the Convention decide to present the Charter to teh Commons immediately — it was due to be presented on 28 February 1839. But instead it was decided to present it on 6 May, sending out agitators to win wider support and gathering more signatures.

Even worse, O’Brien proposed a meeting of the “Members of the Convention and Members of Parliament” to secure support for the Charter. Harney said this would be an “absurd waste of time, and moreover degrading to the character of free-chosen representatives of the people.” He saw these delays not only as a concession to a moral-force strategy doomed to failure, but more worrying an invitation for the government to repress the movement. The government would not forever co-exist with this mass movement if the dominant moral-force faction was vulnerable to challenge by the Democrats. As the Convention opened, Queen Victoria in her speech to Parliament said: “I have observed with pain the persevering efforts which have been made in some parts of the country to excite my subjects to disobedience and resistance to the law, and to recommend dangerous practices”.

The LDA warned that while the government may not feel able to repress them wholesale they would engage in a creeping repression to “crush the present national movement” in a counter-revolution. In March Harney made this appeal: “rather than bow to the intended hateful despotism, we must and will unfurl the red flag of defiance.”

Harney saw a glaring contrast between the militancy of the movement outside the Convention and the moderation within it, warning at a rally in Newcastle that they “were likely to have Girondists in the Convention of the men of England”. The LDA looked to the poorest and most militant section of London workers with whom they had support. On the 28 February, the day the Peoples Charter was originally to have been presented, they held a mass rally at the Hall of Science, City Road and unleashed a broadside on the Convention’s moderation. A series of resolutions were passed declaring that “if the people and their leaders did their duty” the Charter would be law within a month. The resolutions called for the Convention to: meet all acts of oppression with immediate resistance; proceed urgently with the presentation of the Peoples Charter; make immediate preparation for ulterior measures.

The press, led by the Morning Chronicle, responded with a witch-hunt against Harney, depicting him as a dagger waving young romantic. There was also uproar within the Convention, with the moderates demanding apologies from Harney, Rider and Marsden for bringing the movement into disrepute. This lasted for a week. An unbowed Harney stated that he would “stand by his principles and if he could preserve union without abandoning them he would do so; if not he must sacrifice that.” He charged the Convention for “all the consequences that might arise out of this protracted personal discussion” and that he would continue to “appeal to the working men of the country”.

The LDA made further efforts to get the Convention to keep up the momentum of the movement and “rouse support” with simultaneous mass meetings across the country. But the Convention continued to whittle away its energies by concentrating on getting more signatures to the petition, thus putting off the decisive questions until after its presentation. Harney defended his position and the LDA in a Manifesto addressed to the Democracy of Northumberland, Norwich and Derby, asserting that the Convention was a self-governing assembly whose duty was “to hear and receive the opinion of the people”, instead of treating them with the “bitterest hostility.”

The most pointed criticism was reserved for those who made militant speeches outside the Convention but were moderate inside, “Is it because I am honest enough to utter the feelings of my heart…. that I have not one set of speeches for the North, and another set for the Metropolis?” The Manifesto did not argue for a withdrawal from the Convention but appealed to the Chartist rank and file to “strengthen the Convention” by ensuring their delegates take a different course: “you must and will have the Peoples Charter law of the land in this present year 1839”.

Times to try men’s souls

In the localities Chartists were arming and drilling. In a number of industrial towns there was gun running. Workers secretly produced weapons at work. This caused panic amongst local magistrates who flooded the government with demands to sanction the formation of militias of the privileged. The Times criticised the Ministers for leniency. Lord John Russell, on the other hand, wrote to the Duke of Newcastle on 16 March that he doubted that “those who have encouraged their followers to provide themselves with arms are ready to encounter so fearful a risk”. The indecisiveness of the Convention and the anti-revolutionary stirrings of the ruling classes could only give confidence to an otherwise weak and cautious government.

Harney’s warning of the danger of delaying was soon vindicated. Paraphrasing Thomas Paine’s The Crisis, he wrote in the Chartist national paper The Northern Star that the “times are coming to try mens souls”, already “the Democratic Association is attacked — its members are denied a place of meeting”. Barred from their usual venue at the Hall of Science, the LDA were now having difficulty finding meeting rooms.

So there was a divergence not only between the Whig Government and ruling classes in the localities, but also between the Convention and the Chartist rank and file. Faced with a weak Government and massive movement in the country, the Convention had a historic opportunity.

Fergus O’Connor, who had been ill during the first two months on 1839, reasserted his leadership through an alliance with the London left. A rally of three thousand on 16 March at the Crown and Anchor in London provided a platform to attack the moderates, with Harney joining O’Connor, and O’Brien as main speakers. O’Connor asserted that petitions could not defeat Dragons; a resolution was passed stating the Convention should take whatever means necessary to achieve the Charter. Harney said there should be no more petitions unless “signed by steel pens”. His focus was on the looming presentation of the Peoples Charter to Parliament: “The 6th of May should be the last day for doubt or hesitation. The people should then set about asserting their rights in earnest and should have before the close of the year Universal Suffrage or death”. It was an ominously prophetic conclusion.

The Crown and Anchor rally saw the final separation of the middle-class Radical elements from the working class movement. The Birmingham Political Union delegates resigned from the Convention on 28 March, declaring that the rally had shown the Convention was prepared to put in “peril the success of Radical Reform on an appeal to the last and worst weapon of the tyrant and oppressor”.

Their apparent defeat saw the LDA step up a gear with the launch of one of the best publications of the Chartist movement, the London Democrat.

For Old England and Freedom

The new unstamped penny weekly, the London Democrat, was launched under the editorship of Harney and JC Coombe. The Operative predicted from the manner in which it is conducted it was “likely to obtain an extensive circulation”. The LDA had previously been reliant on other papers to get its statements published, now they had their own means to get their ideas across. It could boast a wide readership with a network of distributing agents not only in London but Birmingham, Bath, Bristol, Bradford, Derby, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Harney adopted the pen name of Marat’s paper, “The Friend of the People”, and no doubt with the recent attacks against him in mind in the editorial he wrote:

“I am aware that the remedies I shall propose will call down upon my head the hatred and vengeance of the enemies of equality. I can foresee that I shall be slandered, calumniated, and persecuted. I can even suppose that misled by prejudice, and the villainous misrepresentations of my enemies, even the working classes, in whose cause I have devoted my existence, may themselves oppose me”.

Harney set out to expose “the causes of the evils under which they groan, and the remedies for those evils” through “Scenes and Sketches from the French Revolution’ to give certain extracts from the different histories of that mighty event”; so that the “present generation may derive a lesson from the deeds of the past, and that, in the revolution which will speedily take place in this country” avoid the errors and “imitate” the deeds of revolutionary France. Harney blamed the “inhuman selfishness of the middle classes” for the subsequent bloodshed in the French Revolution and warned that whilst the degradation of the people of England was not identical to France of fifty years prior, “similar causes will produce similar effects”.

On the current situation the London Democrat concluded that the workers’ “enemies do tremble; and more fool you if you keep much longer in doubt. It is an old saying, that you may as well kill a fellow as frighten him to death. Of this then I am sure, that if frightening them will kill them, they’re not far off from death’s door.” That the people do possess the power and the “means of success are in your hands: ‘tis your eyes-only that requires to be cleansed of the film that covers them”.

The LDA’s internationalism found expression in support for the Polish democrat Major Beniowski, veteran of Polish Revolution of 1830. He contributed a regular column on the history of Polish rising. He subsequently ran a treatise on military science with practical advice on resisting dragoons and cavalry.

Many observers by this time were now anticipating a working-class rising and the LDA focused on May 1839 bringing success for the proletariat as the Days of May in 1832 had to the middle-class. Harney wrote that the “6th of May is approaching; tyrants are preparing, traitors deserting; but the honest ‘Democrat’ unfurling the standard of liberty; will rally the poor and oppressed,…to strike the home blow … for old England and freedom”.

The Second International Marxist Max Beer, in his History of British Socialism, described the London Democrat derogatorily as a “mine of Anarchist phrases”, and of Harney that his “tongue could no longer be curbed”. One of the problems of even sympathetic writers is a tendency to see the London Democrat’s readership as in London alone. At this point in 1839 the localities of Chartist strength were increasingly militant well beyond London. According to FC Mathers’ study of the government it was the most favourable time for a rebellion.

“Had the Chartists risen on 6 May they would in fact have found the Government’s defences in a parlous state of disorganisation - troops scattered in small detachments; the reinforcements from Ireland not yet arrived; the magistrates inert from fear or indifference and the propertied inhabitants afraid to come forward as special constables to defend themselves”.

At the time opinion was further confirmed by the Army’s officer corps, whose Naval and Military Gazette reported in March 1839 that the army was “totally inadequate to meet a general outbreak in the North”.

Harney, of course, was not forming his revolutionary opinions out of access to Home Office documents but on the pulse of the movement with which he was intimate. Alternative conclusions have since viewed Harney as being the “most intelligent and best informed of the revolutionaries” in this period. Support for the movement was still strong, as was the agitation. While it is an issue of historical dispute, the reports to the Convention by agitators they had dispatched around the country could only give confidence to the advocates of revolution. For example John Richards, one of the agitators sent out to the Potteries, reported a bleak and explosive situation:

“As regards the Condition of the different towns I have visited, I can only say that poverty destitution and its accompanying feature Squalid Misery form the principle feature.... but I fear all will be of no avail, this being the Language used in those places. Better to die by the Sword than perish with Hunger.”

Your social system requires revolution

The London Democrat saw Chartism as a historically unique movement, called forth in opposition to the “different features” of this new society. The movement required goals which went beyond the bounds of freedom envisioned in the past. In addressing this task the London Democrat anticipated many the ideas of the 1848 revolutions. Writing on the “middle class”, “CR” informs us: “The Past history of the world does not afford another example of the people resolved to annihilate such a complicated and overwhelming tyranny. It has different features, and bids for to be more effectual and attended by happier results than any movement which has occurred in past times from the fact that it is a real working-class movement”.

This new revolution was to transcend the Peoples Charter itself. “Unless the ‘Peoples Charter’ is followed by actions to ‘equalise the conditions of all, the producing classes will still be oppressed and the country will still be involved in the most disastrous calumniates”. That the Peoples Charter was not an end in itself was emphasised by Coombe, who said “I have a great objection to it’s being considered a panacea for all the evils under which you labour”. Freedom required a more total uprooting of these “artificial” social relations;

“The disease which is now preying on your vitals is much too deeply seated to be affected by remedies of this kind. Your whole social system requires ‘revolution’, your commercial system requires ‘revolution’, and nothing short of actual convulsion will affect a cure...Establish the ‘Peoples’ Charter tomorrow, and the working man would have not one difficulty less to contend with”.

This new movement was “confined entirely to the working classes” and in the historic opportunity placed before it the London Democrat reiterated the break with bourgeoisie in 1832: “They will probably pretend to join the working classes in their movement. The working classes will do well to have nothing to do with them.”

The principles of self-emancipation outlined in the London Democrat were pioneering: “Whatever the middle class have ever taken into hand has turned out to the people’s cost to be delusive and fraudulent; therefore, as the producing classes intend to regenerate their country, they must rely on themselves and on themselves alone”. The counter-revolutionary role of the exploitative classes was further outlined by Harney drawing on the Polish Revolution of 1830: “But why, my friends, did the revolution fail? The revolution failed because Poles themselves wished to keep millions of their own countrymen in bondage”.

Rothstein argues that the LDA, and Harney in particular, had anticipated “some of the things subsequently taught by Marx and Engels”. What was of lasting significance, and was argued in the principles of the LDA was that they did not accept the argument of “get the Charter first and consider what we will do afterward”. Harney posed the question: the “Charter was a means to an end, but what was the end?”