Friday, 7 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 2

The growth of labour history 1880-1940

By the 1880s political and social interpretations of Chartism had been linked by most British historians. This fitted well with the dominant ‘Whig’ interpretation of history[1]. British history was, according to this philosophy, one of progress with the gradual evolution of a representative Parliament by constitutional means. Consequently, Chartism was premature rather than mistaken in its political demands. The Chartist autobiographies published between the 1870s and 1900 reinforced this view and with their emphasis on respectability did much to invent the tradition of Chartism as a forerunner of Victorian Liberalism. The mid-Victorian boom of the 1850s and 1860s improved most working class living standards removing the spectre of ‘distress’. The growth of ill-defined notions of working class ‘respectability’ resulted, in 1867 and 1884, in the gradual extension of the vote to working men. Property qualifications for MPs were abolished in 1858 and the secret ballot introduced in 1872. The debate among the old Chartists and early labour historians was over what Chartism had become. Did the radical Chartist tradition continue into the second half of the century? Had it evolved into socialism or was Gladstonian Liberalism its logical beneficiary?

The confidence of the British economy was undermined by growing foreign competition from the mid-1870s and growing awareness of the extreme poverty of Britain’s cities led to a shift in writings on Chartism. The struggling British labour movement was susceptible to charges that socialism was a doctrine of disorder imported from the continent. The result was the development of two major schools of thought, Fabian and Marxist, both of which looked to Chartism for their intellectual origins. The Fabians emerged in the 1880s as a radical ‘think-tank’ committed to interventionist solutions to the economic and social problems facing late nineteenth century society. By contrast, the Marxists sought revolutionary change in society by shifting all the means of production, distribution and exchange to democratic government, establishing working class power and recognised the common interests between workers across the world. The two approaches may have overlapped but they led to significantly different perspectives on the history of Chartism. In Beatrice and Sidney Webbs’ History of Trade Unionism, 1894, and Graham Wallas’ The Life of Francis Place, 1898, Chartism was according a place of some importance. Wallas wrote in the revised 1918 edition that: “Place’s correspondence at the time [1837-8] shows that he thought Chartism had little chance of immediate success unless some accident, as had happened in 1832, should bring politics into a revolutionary position. But he was sure that a well-managed agitation for the Charter would create a strong democratic party, led by the new class of educated working-men, and able to put pressure upon Parliament…..”

It was the radical artisan tradition the Fabians emphasised. By contrast the Marxists, and especially Marx himself, marginalised the role of artisans within the proletariat. The preoccupation of artisans with changing the political rather than the economic system and their insistence on a political programme that differed little from that of middle class radicals on the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries posed a fundamental dilemma. Were the Chartists irrelevant in the process of changing the capitalist system or were they the first proletarian political party? The innumerable references to the Chartists in Marx’s and Engels’ writings meant that Marxist historians paid the movement particular attention especially those Chartists who sought revolutionary solutions.

Hovell and West: A Fabian perspective

Between 1895 and 1920 the first scholarly histories of Chartism appeared. From Germany John Tildersley explained, in 1898, how the social and economic background of the 1830s and 1840s affected the course of the movement. In 1914, Edouard Dolléans published Le Chartisme 1831-1848 coming to the single comprehensive answer that Chartism was the reaction of the working class against the Industrial Revolution. Two years later three studies were published by Columbia University: F.F. Rosenblatt The Chartist Movement in its Social and Economic Aspects, P.W. Slosson The Decline of the Chartist Movement and H.U. Faulkner Chartism and the Churches.

Two other writers, both of whom died young, worked on general narrative accounts of Chartism using the Place Manuscripts in the British Library. Mark Hovell of Manchester University was killed in 1916 but his work was completed by Professor T.F. Tout[2] and was the most influential book on Chartism in the first half of the twentieth century. He was a free trade liberal in economics and a Fabian in politics and this clearly influenced his interpretation of Chartism. The Chartist Movement remains an impressive book for the clarity of its narrative and for the care that it takes to link Chartism to the process of rapid industrial change. Hovell relied for his sources on Chartist autobiographies, Chartist newspapers and on the extensive archive of Francis Place housed in the British Library. He largely followed Place’s London-centred, artisanal interpretation of events and argued that the London Working Men’s Association sought, through peaceful campaigning, to achieve its political objectives but that this was wrenched from their hands by Feargus O’Connor. Middle class opinion was as a result alienated, the first petition was rejected and all hope of a successful movement was destroyed. He drew a stark contrast between the rational behaviour of William Lovett and the LWMA and the “violent, unorganised and undisciplined” provincial radicals motivated by distress rather than reason.

Like history books written by progressive authors of the early twentieth century, Hovell was concerned to explain and justify progress. The Chartists aimed for democracy and so were agents of progress; something achieved for all men and women over thirty in the year the book was published. Hovell recognised that ‘not a single article of Chartist policy had the remotest chance of becoming law until the movement had expired’ though his explanation for this provides clear evidence of his wider views. He continued: ‘It is only when Chartism ceased to be a name of terror that the process of giving effect to its programme was taken up by the middle-class Parliaments of the later Victorian age’[3]. Consequently, his book is far more sympathetic to those leaders he regarded as apostles of progress, such as Vincent, Lowery and especially Lovett than those, such as O’Connor whom he believed were misleading the masses.

Julius West, a Russian exile and Fabian official, died in 1920 and his History of Chartism was seen through to publication by J.C. Squires. His work is more extensive than Hovell’s especially on the later years of the movement which Hovell did not reach. He too focused on the role of the LWMA comparing its tactics to those used by the Fabians. He is less hostile to O’Connor but still inclined to see him as a would-be dictator.

All these works made a similar distinction between the rational, ‘moral force’ ideas of Lovett and the LWMA and the physical and potentially explosive outlook of O’Connor and the provincial radicals, a position that dominated the shape of Chartist historiography until well after 1945. This explanation derived largely from the authoritative use of the Place collection and particularly his judgement that provincial radicals were illiterate and impatient and their leaders “wicked and designing men”. This perspective was of particular value in explaining why Chartism failed to achieve its objectives. The movement was destroyed by divisions, what Hovell called “its own inner contradictions”, within the working class between the more affluent skilled artisans and the less economically secure factory workers and out-workers. This division between, what G.D.H. Cole in 1940 called ‘rational Chartism’ and ‘hungry Chartism’, is too convenient a solution and reflected the gradualist approach of Fabians and liberals rather than the historical record. There is, for example, little to support Hovell’s argument that sufficient voters might have been persuaded to support a rationally argued case for the Charter but for the violent rhetoric and behaviour of O’Connor and his supporters.

A Marxist perspective

There was a widening gulf between those who advocated gradualism and the supporters of armed revolution in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution in Russia. Marxist writers declared that the Chartist movement was part of a revolutionary tradition rather than a gradualist one. Two, Theodore Rothstein and Reg Groves, are of particular importance because they emphasised the ‘class’ dimension of the movement. Rothstein’s From Chartism to Labourism was published in 1929, but based in part on work from several years earlier. It focused on how some Chartist writers, especially James Bronterre O’Brien and George Julian Harney, recognised the need for the destruction of bourgeois institutions more than later leaders of the labour movement. This revolutionary dimension, evident is the activities of groups like the Fraternal Democrats and other Chartist supporters of European revolutions, showed the strength of class feeling within the movement. Rothstein, however, had difficulty in reconciling high levels of Chartist agitation by artisans and small masters rather than by the proletarians in the factories. The Marxist perspective was certainly a useful alternative to the ‘Whiggish’ views of the Fabians. But on one thing they did agree. Both were highly critical of the role played by Feargus O’Connor. To the Fabians, and especially to Hovell, O’Connor had destroyed Chartism by his insistence on violent rhetoric which prevented the peaceful growth of a rational movement that could, perhaps, have convinced the authorities of the argument for further reform. For the Marxists, and especially Reg Groves in his But We Shall Rise Again, published in 1938, it was not O’Connor’s violence but his lack of revolutionary vision and his opposition to socialism that deprived the movement of its success.


[1] On the historiographical framework for the development of labour history see Christopher Parker The English Historical Tradition since 1850, Edinburgh, 1990.

[2] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester, 1918.

[3] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester, 1918, page 302.

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