Breaking the mould: revolutionary Chartism part four

Submitted by AWL on 6 June, 2008 - 10:58 Author: Chris Ford

Means versus ends

George Harney had posed the question: the “Charter was a means to an end, but what was the end?” Gregory Claeys asserts the end was not socialism and that utopian socialists of the time, led by Robert Owen had a monopoly on this emancipatory ideal: “No Chartist revolutionary had ever explained at length why violence alone could terminate the existing system... These doctrines were anathema not only to the Owenites but equally to most social Chartists”. Claeys argues that the “idea of socialism-as-revolution was therefore new to Britain”, and the origin of the transformation of socialism from moral force Owenite socialism to physical force socialism only came about under the influence of the 1848 revolutions and the presence of Continental socialist émigrés. But to accept Claeys’s assessment deters us from finding what was truly revolutionary in 1839 other than the advocacy of physical force.

Claeys argues that socialism at the time was identified eclusively with Owenite socialism. In fact this monopoly of utopian socialism was already being challenged; readers of the Northern Star were told in October 1838 under the title “socialism v Owenism” that “it has long seemed a misfortune in the discussions upon socialism, that it is synonymous with Owenism”. To identify the two as one was an obstruction to “true socialism”. The resurgent class struggles of 1837-39 gave fresh growth to Owenism and sales of the New Moral World. However Owen was no advocate of proletarian self-emancipation; class struggle was anathema to him. Whilst there was co-operation on the ground between Owenites and Chartists, Owen and many of his followers remained antagonistic to Chartism.

The Owenites criticised the Chartists for putting political rights before the resolution of social questions. In fact the workers themselves demanded social questions were addressed, the question of capital and labour.

Bronterre O’Brien in the Operative noted that “I am repeatedly urged by friends and correspondents to write articles on wages or, what amounts to the same, on the conflicting claims of labour and capital”. O’Brien wished to put off the matter as “I think that until the question of universal suffrage is settled, we cannot with advantage enter deeply into that of labour and capital”. However when he did express his opinions in the Northern Star the paper had record sales.

The Westminster Review noted that “Owenism, as those are aware who habitually watch the progress of opinion, is at present in one form or another, the actual creed of a great portion of the working class”. To the extent that the militant section of the proletariat adopted the belief in a new society the barrier was broken between this goal of a cooperative society and its realisation by the workers themselves. The transcending of this problem of means-versus-ends through workers self-emancipation, was progressed by the London Democratic Association. Harney spoke of the “Charter being a means to an end, the means being their political rights, and the end being social equality. Did he mean that they all should have their food dressed in, their houses built in parallelograms... no such thing”. In this he echoed James Elishama Smith’s condemnation of Owen’s “system of uniform and everlasting parallelograms”. Harney criticism of Owen’s paternalistic schemes showed remarkable insight of the danger in the utopian socialist’s plans of a new society in which the workers do not play any part in shaping their own freedom — a tyranny which in the 20th century was fully experienced with Stalinism.

Women daring to be free

There was another force breaking the mould at this historic moment — women. Unlike the London Working Men’s Association which did not allow women members the LDA had done so since its foundation. On 14 April the Operative reported a new initiative in self-organisation with the London Female Democratic Association, the Secretary of which was Elizabeth Neesom. Chartism was one of the first modern mass movements of working people, which saw widespread self-organisation of women. Female radical associations were born throughout the country issuing numerous addresses and statements.

If universal equality was the goal then Chartism should have been the first suffragette movement. During consultation with the localities on the content of the Peoples Charter it was proposed to include women’s suffrage. The LWMA confirms that: “Against this reasonable proposition we have no just argument to adduce but only express our fears of entertaining it, lest the false estimate man entertains for this half of the human family may cause his ignorance and prejudice to be enlisted to retard the progress of his own freedom”.

Spence had argued in favour of women’s rights including the vote, but as his heirs the LDA fell behind. The “Objects” of the LDA advocated extending “suffrage to every adult male“, in contradiction to the actual practice of the organisation. Even in the context of the time they were advanced, but one cannot disguise the fact that male chauvinism impacted even on the most revolutionary of bodies; even if, Harney said, good as the men were “the women were the better men of the two”.

In an address to the Women of England, and Particularly the Women of the Metropolis, Elizabeth Neesom wrote that: “We the Members of the London Female Democratic Association, consider it our duty to co-operate with our patriotic sisters in the country, to obtain Universal Suffrage in the shortest possible time”. The Female Democrats set out their aim as being not only universal suffrage but to “annihilate the cruel, unjust, and atrocious New Poor Law” and to support those engaged in the “struggle for freedom”. The question of the barbaric treatment of children at this time came under scathing attack with a pledge to “to destroy forever” the system that subjugates them to the “horrid cotton hells, and treating them worse than black slaves, for no other crime than that of being poor”. Neesom wrote:

“Sisters and friends, we entreat you to shake off that apathy and timidity which too generally prevails among our sex (arising from the prejudice of a false education) and join us in our holy cause, to show to the oppressors that even women, domesticated women, leaving her homestead will battle for the rights of those dear to us”.

The Female Democrat’s reiterated the arrival of militant organised women in a manner that was overtly republican in its aside to Queen Victoria in defiance of the sovereignty of the people:

“To those who may be, or rather appear to be, surprised that females should be daring enough to interfere with politics, we simply say, that as it is a female that assumes to rule this nation in defiance of universal rights of man and women, we assert in accordance with the rights of all, and acknowledging the sovereignty of the people our rights as free women (or women determined to be free) to rule ourselves.”

The newly organised Female Democrats called on women to join the Association’s weekly meetings. Elizabeth Neesom has rightly been asserted as being “perhaps the leading women Chartist in London”.

That women were engaged in such open defiance of the stifling chauvinism of Victorian society is further evidence of just how revolutionary this moment was. Over a hundred known women’s associations sprung into life at this time. In a sign of further agitation the May issue of the London Democrat reported a Female Democratic Association in existence in Norwich. The Secretary Eliza Chapman wrote welcoming the launch of the London Democrat:

“We say go on and prosper, strike terror into the hearts of tyrants; and be assured that when the death struggle shall come, the Women of Norwich will be found in the front rank, fighting for that which is dearest of all things, liberty!”.

London, apathy and agitation

“Apathetic” is the term usually used by historians to describe London’s role in 1839. This is an unfair generalisation; relative to previous years, London radicalism was actually in a resurgent phase, but it was certainly weak in comparison to the insurgent north. Harney noted how in the mobilisations to elect the London delegation to the Convention “In point of numbers this was far inferior to the meetings in the North of England and Scotland”. London, he believed, “can only be moved in sections; even fifty years ago it was too vast to be moved as a whole.“

Whilst the LDA was conscious of the better-off state of many of the London workforce the London Democrat insisted that there were still London workers “reduced to as wretched a state of degradation, as they are in any part of the country”. At the opening of the Convention delegates bemoaned the contrasts and according to David Goodway: “It is clear that many of the provincial delegates (in addition to Harney and his fellow Jacobins) had come to London in the anticipation that the metropolitan masses would play the same role — and sweep them to power — as the Parisian sans-culottes had in the French Revolution”.

The Convention saw a problem in this and set up an agitation committee to rouse London. The spring saw an energetic campaign with a series of mass meetings, and the Northern Star was reporting; “Who shall say that London is apathetic”. The intense activity did bear fruit, with the number of Chartist branches growing from twenty in January to thirty-eight in April 1839.

The LDA played no small part in this agitation and saw its ranks swell to three thousand members, with a string of new Divisions established. Despite their role the London Democrats still felt under-represented in the Convention. An opportunity to remedy this arose when a mass meeting was called at the Bell Inn, Old Bailey on 16 April to set up a unified London wide, Metropolitan Charter Association. The LDA was not about to accept a repeat of the manoeuvres of the previous meeting to elect the delegates and turned out in force. This outraged the moderates. The Charter, aligned to Lovett, attacked a body of Democrats who attended passing a resolution which was “throwing the whole organisation of London into the hands of the ‘Democratic Association”. On 19 April further progress was made with a fusion with the West London Democratic Association, and the LDA now turned to representation within the Convention itself.

To those within the Convention who talked of unity between the “Peace, Law & Order Chartists” and to the “peaceably if we may forcibly if we must” Chartists, Coombe’s responded scathingly. In his view, the desertions of the middle class were no loss but an opportunity for the Convention to prepare for a showdown with the authorities. That the time was ripe was very much reflected in the London Democrat of a few days later: “The principles are understood, and recognised as far as they are likely to be, and the banner of the Charter has aroused a greater number than it could possibly have been expected”. In the opinion of the London Democrat they had now won over more than enough support to “enforce the demands of the people”. The time was ripe for a “plan of action to be laid before the people”. The LDA were clearly stating that they desired a far more radical transformation than even the People’s Charter would have achieved, “There is nothing to captivate in the term “Universal Suffrage” it might only supplant one faction by another”.

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