Saturday, 8 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 4

Class, Politics and Language 1980-1996

Marxist historians sought to ‘rescue’ their key working-class movement from the fragmentation and, by implication belittling of localism. They produced an impressive defence of their position especially through the writings of Edward and especially Dorothy Thompson and John Saville. The major problem with their combined work is that it appears to be based on a romantic reconstruction of a Chartist past peopled by unsung working-class heroes struggling against massive odds. They struggled against a powerful capitalist elite and a sophisticated British state cunning enough to avoid creating political martyrs. Much of their writing is extremely beguiling and is grounded in a wide range of sources but it sometimes teeters on the edge of romantic stereotype.

Marxist and socialist historiography has attempted to rescue the reputation of O’Connor seeing him as a true people’s champion rather than as a crude demagogue who misled his supporters. Dorothy Thompson cannot be how Chartism could have functioned without O’Connor[1]: ‘In fact, so far from bring the exploiter and distorter of the Chartist movement, O’Connor was so much the centre of it that, had the name Chartist not been coined, the radical movement between 1838 and 1848 must surely have been called O’Connorite Radicalism. Remove him and his newspaper from the picture, and the movement fragments, localises and loses its continuity…For good or ill, he was the main inspiration and guiding force of the movement.’

James Epstein’s revisionist biography, published in 1982, leaves no doubt that O’Connor was central to the movement. He rejects the old charge that O’Connor led to movement astray and portrays him as a far-sighted democrat. However, this reinterpretation, which only covers the ten years up to 1842, has to contend not only with the weight of the ‘anti-Feargus’ historiography up to the early 1980s but also with the opinion of virtually all other Chartist leaders who saw, at the very least, substantial flaws accompanying his massive presence. There are two important charges that Epstein does not really answer: first, his oratory raised unrealistic expectations throughout the country; and, secondly, his courage failed him in 1848 when put to the test by the authorities and seemed all too anxious to please.

Questions still remain against O’Connor, but the importance of Epstein’s work is that it provides a more rounded picture of O’Connor and it cannot be denied that his reputation stands higher today than ever before.

Debating class

The debate over the class nature of Chartism has lasted for decades and historians seem to be no closer in resolving it. The problem lies with the word ‘class’ itself. Many historians derive their understanding of class from the Marxist definition: classes acquired their economic definition from the relationship of their members to the means of production. Inherent in this definition is the notion of class struggle between the owners and non-owners of capital. Some studies do demonstrate this class dimension. Ivor Wilks’ and D.J.V. Jones’ studies of the Newport rising of 1839, published respectively in 1984 and 1985, shows South Wales to be a society deeply divided by perceptions of class and the rising as driven by strong class feeling. Malcolm Thomis, by contrast, suggests that only a minority of workers became Chartists, that their enthusiasm was short-lived and that the norm was widespread working class apathy to the efforts of their would-be political leaders[2]. Harold Perkin sees class conflict as an expression of an ‘immature’ rather than ‘mature ‘class system[3] . The problem historians face is that while most in the Chartist movement saw themselves as ‘working people’, many did not fit into the neat Marxist class category. There may have been a unity of interest within the working population but there were also significant conflicts of interest. Artisans had little in common with the unskilled workers in the industrial towns. The aspirations of Scottish Chartists were not the same as those of Manchester or Birmingham. A strong case can be made that these divisions were of greater importance to Chartism than the potentially unifying effects of class. Few historians would go as far as Norman McCord and suggest that as there is no agreed and clear definition of class it would perhaps be better if we tried to avoid the concept[4] . Richard Dennis, in his study of nineteenth century industrial cities, seems to sum up the present state-of-play[5]: “Evidently the road to class analysis crosses a minefield with a sniper behind every bush….it may not be possible to please all the people all of the time….”

The focus on class meant that other contemporary ways of dividing up society, such as ethnic and gender divisions, were excluded from serious study. The answer to this perennial problem may lie in looking at how contemporaries construed ‘class’ rather than rely on later, often politically motivated, definitions. In the 1830s and 1840s, ‘class’ was a far cruder and flexible concept used in different ways on different occasions. The underlying effect of the Marxist interpretation of class has been to impose homogeneity upon the working class and on their class consciousness that does not correspond to contemporary experience.

Restating the political

The publication of The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-1860, a collection of essays edited by James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson, marked an important stage in the historiography of Chartism. It contained the paper by Gareth Steadman Jones entitled ‘The Language of Chartism’ which he republished in an extended form in his Languages of Class the following year. This reasserted the centrality of politics in the Chartist agitation. Steadman Jones argued that Chartism inherited from earlier artisan-radical movements not only their essentially political programme of the mass platform but also their analyses of oppression and distress. He suggests that there was little hostility between employers and capitalists as such and that the basic causes of exploitation were seen as political rather than economic. The crucial dividing line between classes was not determined by their respective economic roles but by the division established by the 1832 Reform Act between those who possessed and those who were denied political power. He also believed that Chartist lost impetus and vision in the early 1840s, considerably earlier than other twentieth-century historians of Chartism have suggested.


[1] D. Thompson The Chartists, page 96.

[2] Malcolm I. Thomis Responses to Industrialisation: The British Experience 1780-1850, Newton Abbot, 1976 and M.I. Thomis and Peter Holt Threats of Revolution in Britain 1789-1848, London, 1977, page 100-116 contain the best summary of his position.

[3] Harold Perkin The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, London, 1969, especially in chapters vi and vii.

[4] Norman McCord ‘Adding a Touch of Class’, History, volume 70, (1985) is useful on this issue.

[5] Richard Dennis English Industrial Cities of the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1984, pages 184-5.

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