Some Practices and Problems of Chartist Democracy
THE Chartists will always be important in the history of the struggle for democracy. But historians have tended to shrink what the Chartists meant by democracy to the six points of the Charter. Even if it was revolutionary at the time to challenge property as the basis of political rights and to extend citizenship to (male) humanity none the less the call for a representative Parliament, largely elected by, composed of and annually accountable to working men was only a part of Chartist democracy.1 In this chapter I will explore some practices of self- government within the Chartist Movement, partly as a way of recapturing the larger Chartist project, but also to bring out the relationship between class situation and organisational possibility in the Chartist period. To create a real democratic practice, the Chartists had to manoeuvre consciously within enormous constraints. This chapter will explore not only the changing and enlarging scope of Chartist democratic ambition, but also Chartist attempts to deal with the scarcity of time and money in working-class life and their attempts to grapple with the State and the law. Once the Chartists are seen as practical democrats and movement builders who tried to work within formidable difficulties, some of the clichés of existing historiography begin to crumple. The endless twists and turns in Chartist strategy and organisation become less easy to chalk up to Chartist ineptitude, to insufficient class consciousness or to incessant bickering among leaders.2 A different logic to Chartist chronology begins to emerge.
KeywordsGeneral Council Land Plan National Movement General Strike Missionary Work
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- 2.The first historian of Chartism, R. G. Gammage, set the style for stressing rivalries between leaders, History of the Chartist Movement (1854; 2nd edn, 1894; reprint 1976); for inefficiency, e.g. K. Judge, ‘Early Chartist Organisation and the Convention of 1839’, International Review of Social History, XX (1975); for insufficient class consciousness, e.g. T. Rothstein, From Chartism to Labourism (1929) p. 92; for working-class movements needing to manoeuvre creatively within huge constraints, see S. Yeo, ‘Some Problems in Realising a General Working-Class Strategy in Twentieth-century Britain’ (unpublished paper read to the BSA 1977, in author’s possession).Google Scholar
- 5.Exclusive dealing, i.e. trading only with people sympathetic to your cause, was a standard political tactic of the period and an important way for nonelectors to influence voting: N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953) p. 175; J. Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (1974) pp. 52 ff, for Oldham. Tax refusal was practised in the 1832 parliamentary reform agitation and a run on the banks and on gold proposed: I. Prothero, ‘William Benbow and the Concept of the “General Strike’”, Past & Present, no. 63 (1974), which also analyses changing ideas of and plans for a general strike in the early 1830s. In 1838 Thomas Attwood revived the project of a political strike of the productive classes, working and middle, against a corrupt State (during which masters would continue to pay wages!): C. Flick, The Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain (Hamden, Conn.; Folkestone, Kent, 1978) p. 158, p. 82 for earlier tactics.Google Scholar
- 10.Especially D. Thompson, ‘Women and Nineteenth-century Radical Politics: a Lost Dimension’, in J. Mitchell and A. Oakley (eds), The Rights and Wrongs of Women (Harmondsworth, 1976); B. Taylor, ‘The Feminist Theory and Practice of the Owenite Socialist Movement in Britain 1820–1845’ (Univ. of Sussex Ph.D. thesis, 1981).Google Scholar
- 18.R. F. Wearmouth, Methodism and the Working-Class Movements of England 1800–1850 (1937) pp. 144 ff. for Chartist classes; for Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist classes, R. Currie, Methodism Divided (1968), pt I and Revd H. B. Kendall, The Origin and History of the Primitive Methodist Church, 2 vols (n.d.) I, p. 31.Google Scholar
- 21.Ibid., 22 August 1840, p. 1. For previous use of classes, S. Bamford, Early Days (1849, reprint 1967) p. 43; J. F. C. Harrison, Learning and Living 1790–1960 (1961) pp. 49–51; E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963) pp. 152–5; W. Lovett, Life and Struggles (1876) p. 68; New Moral World, 14 April 1838, p. 195, for details of socialist practice.Google Scholar
- 39.Historians like Judge, ‘Early Chartist Organisation’, p. 396 and L. Radzinowicz, ‘New Departures in Maintaining Public Order in the Face of Chartist Disturbances’, Cambridge Law Journal (1960), note the change and tend to argue that Chartist fear of the authorities was misplaced; they also underestimate such concern as a factor shaping Chartist organisation.Google Scholar
- 45.Bolton Free Press, 20 April 1839, p. 3; see Prothero, ‘William Benbow’ for earlier conceptions of a Convention, also T. M. Parssinen, ‘Association, Convention, Anti-Parliament in British Radical Politics, 1771–1848, English Historical Review, LXXXVIII (1973).Google Scholar
- 51.W. Farish, The Autobiography of William Farish. The Struggles of a Hand-Loom Weaver [Carlisle, 1889] p.35;inTulliehouse (Carlisle) Public Library; for municipal politicking, NS 19 September 1840, p. 1; J. F. C. Harrison, ‘Chartism in Leeds’, in A. Briggs (ed.), Chartist Studies (1959), pp. 86–91.Google Scholar
- 52.NS 27 February 1841, p. 1 for discussions. Lovett’s own proposed National Association of the United Kingdom for the Political and Social Improvement of the People, had national officers, a large General Board (really an annual delegate Convention meeting for a fortnight), and local councils only in the form of elected committees of management of the district halls which were a central feature of the plan. W. Lovett and J. Collins, Chartism a New Organization of the People (1840; reprint Leicester, 1969) pp. 27 ff.Google Scholar
- 55.I. Prothero, ‘London Chartism and the Trades’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., XXIV (1971) 215 ff. explores this issue showing how land schemes were not mere backward-looking nostalgia but served very real material needs of trade unionists; also his ‘Chartism in London’, Past & Present, no. 44 (1969) 98 ff. For developments outside London, see NS 8 July 1843, p. 5, for the Bradford Woolcomber’s Joint Stock Land Company and J. West, History of the Chartist Movement (1920) pp. 200 ff. The National Association of United Trades (1845 ff.) and its sister-organisation which was committed to promoting collective self-employment and co-operative production were really Chartist bodies.Google Scholar
- 67.Arguably the Chartist Land Company, as the first mass-shareholding company, actually took the risks for the Limited Liability Act from which capitalists then benefited. The Christian socialist influence in starting the move towards Ltd has been highlighted by J. Saville, ‘Sleeping Partnership and Limited Liability, 1850–6’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., VIII (1955).Google Scholar