Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Aspects of Chartism: Divergent Chartisms in the early 1840s

The strident, revolutionary Chartism of 1839 and early 1840 had failed. The Chartists assumed that government would be unable to resist weight of numbers as in 1831-2, move towards repressive policies and that this would be spark off an explosion of protest sufficient to engulf the forces of reaction. They were wrong. The government did not act as expected. Initially Russell used conciliatory tones giving the more extreme Chartists time to alienate middle class reformers and moderate opinion by their militant rhetoric. The initiative quickly moved to the government and the Chartists found themselves on the defensive caught between defeat and insurrection. By early 1840, with many of their leaders either imprisoned or awaiting trial, it was clear the Chartists could not defeat the state by force. Between 1840 and 1842 an intense and often ill tempered debate took place between those who embraced mass action and those who favoured a more exclusive form of organisation. This was reflected in O’Connor’s much publicised attack on[1]

‘Religious, Knowledge and Temperance Chartism HUMBUG: If Chartists you are, Chartists remain; you have work enough without entering into the new maze prepared for you…get your Charter, and I will answer for the religion, sobriety, knowledge and house, and a bit of land into the bargain…”

Had, as R.H. Tawney later suggested, ‘the brains had gone out of Chartism’? Chartism was a cultural as well as a political phenomenon. This too reflected the diversity of the experiences and aspirations of the working class. Divisions began to emerge between O’Connor’s insistence on democracy and the ‘new movers’ who denounced him and sought to reformulate the reform alliance. At the core of the problems facing Chartism was how it should proceed. The first Convention had been an organisational shambles. It lacked effective accountability and financial stability. O’Connor recognised that Chartism needed a permanent and centralised organisational structure with a national executive, weekly membership fees and elected officers. Yet he needed to preserve the broadly democratic and inclusive character of the mass platform. It was also necessary to recognise the reality of working class life particularly the limited amount the poorly paid and the casually employed workers could or would contribute to the movement when working. The National Charter Association (NCA), set up while O’Connor languished in prison, sought to resolve these contradictions and did so with a remarkable degree of success. The NCA held a broad appeal for many within the working class and O’Connor strongly approved of collective self-help within the democratic and inclusive framework of the organisation. For others in the movement the reassertion of the mass platform was increasingly unacceptable. It had failed in 1839 and 1840 and they believed new approaches were necessary if the Charter was to be achieved.

New moves

The ‘new movers’ wanted to revitalise the elite politics and ideological focus of the LWMA to take account of the important changes that were taking place in political culture and communication. They also reflected the deep divisions within the working class especially between skilled artisans and other industrial workers. A cultural shift towards greater ‘respectability’ in politics took place in the 1830s largely as a result of middle class enfranchisement in 1832 and the extra-parliamentary activities of the Anti-Corn Law League. The nature of politics changed as the older forms and rituals of open elections and the mass platform were challenged by more disciplined and organised forms of political expression, what D.A. Hamer called the ‘politics of electoral pressure’[2]. In addition, public order, threatened by the anarchic street theatre of popular protest, was more effectively policed and radical access to public space was increasingly restricted. Growing levels of working class literacy and a rapidly expanding press, especially after the virtual abolition of stamp duty in 1836, encouraged emergent political consciousness within confines of the home. The growing moralism of reforming politics, a fusion of middle class radicalism with Nonconformist conscience, appealed to many disillusioned Chartists. The development of respectability provided an alternative and more realistic means of achieving the Charter than the demagogic and increasingly arcane approach of O’Connor. For them the franchise was not simply a question of political rights but a test of character. The result was the emergence of new initiatives aimed at developing the ‘character’ necessary for the working class to be given the vote. It is hardly surprising that O’Connor was opposed to these initiatives. In O’Connor’s defence, it should be said that, though he has been condemned by later historian, O’Connor succeeded in keeping the disparate Chartist constituencies united for nearly a decade only by stamping hard on all initiatives that would divide Chartists against each other (as Christian Chartism and Temperance Chartism threatened to do) or to take it down avenues where it would lose focus (as was the case with Knowledge Chartism).


[1] Northern Star, 3rd April 1841.

[2] D.A. Hamer The Politics of Electoral Pressure. A Study in the history of Victorian Reform Agitations, Brighton, 1977, especially pages 9-37.

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