Monday, 10 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 5

A ‘linguistic turn’: considering Stedman Jones?

Stedman Jones sought to understand what he saw as the essence of Chartism though a study of Chartist language divorced, as he puts it, from its ‘social inferences’. He argues that the interpretative costs of the orthodox approach leads to a general neglect of the specific political and ideological form within which mass discontent was expressed and the consequent tendency to elide the Chartist language of class with a range of Marxist or sociological notions of class consciousness. Knowledge of the social context of Chartism, according to Stedman Jones has distorted reality and examining Chartist language conveys a more precise relationship between ideology and activity than is conveyed in the orthodox model. Stedman Jones starts with two general observations: first, he contends that what is remarkable about the Chartist movement was neither local divisions nor sociological differences, but rather Chartism’s national dimensions and shared aims; and secondly, the movement was defined by its capacity to convince vast numbers of working people throughout Britain that various forms of social and cultural discontent could be resolved through a realisation of Chartism’s political demands, notably universal manhood suffrage.

This dual emphasis on Chartism’s national unity and political perspective fitted in with the revisionist work of other historians, most notably Dorothy Thompson. What distinguishes Stedman Jones’ analysis is his reconstruction of the continuities between Chartist ‘language’ and the language of eighteenth and early-nineteenth century radicalism and the conclusions he drew from this reading. He offers a condense summary of the history of British political radicalism in order to establish the ideological roots of Chartism. Radicalism remained throughout the period since 1770 the ‘vocabulary of political exclusion whatever the social character of those excluded’ and as such it could ‘never be the ideology of a specific class’. Following the 1832 Reform Act, the ‘excluded’ and the ‘working classes’ took on an identity crucial to the emergence of Chartism: ‘the people’ became ‘the working classes’. Thus, Stedman Jones argues, ‘the language of class’ was ‘the language of radicalism’.

Certain conclusions follow from this reading. Re-analysis gives full weight to the actual language of Chartism and allows the movement’s rise and fall to be situated more precisely. Since the central tenet of radicalism remained an insistence on the political sources of social and economic discontent, Chartism depended on specific conditions in which working people could perceive the state and the propertied classes in their legal and political roles as the sources of all oppression. The movement was therefore particularly vulnerable to shifts in the state’s attitude to certain social reforms. Once the state was no longer seen as unreservedly oppressive and capable of reform, the political language of Chartism lost credibility. This interpretation suggests a new way of understanding the relative stability of mid-Victorian Britain. In radical discourse, the primary distinction was not between employers and employed but rather between the unrepresented, the people and the represented, the privileged. Hostility towards the middle classes was not directed to their role in the production system but to their participation in a corrupt and oppressive political system. The producers of wealth were exploited through the mechanisms of the state. Chartism’s rapid decline, Stedman Jones maintains, demonstrated the limit beyond which radical ideology could not stretch without losing its internal cohesion. It could not survive the retreat of the Victorian state from its exposed position of the 1830s.

Stedman Jones does not deny the intense Chartist hostility towards employers, especially the northern factory owners but rather contends that there was no theoretical basis for such hostility within radical discourse beyond middle class participation in a corrupt political system. He recognises that the writings of Thomas Hodgskin, William Thompson and John Bray imparted a new ideology of capitalist exploitation to working-class radicalism but that in ‘Ricardian socialism’ economic exploitation took place not at the point of production but rather through the mechanisms of a system of unequal exchange and distribution, a system that was politically derived and maintained. He concludes that it should not be assumed that the radical analysis that lay behind the Charter was in the course of displacement by a different and more class conscious mode of thought. There were certainly new emphases but Chartist language was more closely linked to the vocabulary of radicalism than to that of the class-based language of socialism.

Chartist rejection of middle-class initiatives had less to do with their desirability than with the terms on which middle-class support could be secured. The Chartist strategy in 1839 was to mobilise the vast majority of the ‘people’, including a substantial portion of the middle classes, against the state. Stedman Jones comments that neither the National Petition nor the Chartist Convention was premised on populist politics. He argues that the failure of the Chartist strategy in 1839 and lack of middle-class support called into question any simple notion of the unity of the people. If 1839 demonstrated the inadequacy of a radical strategy for political change modelled on the successful middle-class campaign of 1831-2, then the defeats of 1842 demonstrated the shortcomings of a new tactic, mass industrial strikes for political ends. The movement’s early years dramatised the fundamental contradiction of Chartism: a movement almost exclusively working-class pursued a strategy of mobilisation rooted in the terms of radical as opposed to proletarian socialist ideology.

In Stedman Jones’ interpretation, Chartism appears less as the culmination of the ‘making of the English working class’ and more as the impressive final manifestation of a radical political tradition stretching back into the eighteenth century. Chartism’s specific character was defined by the 1832 Reform Act that resulted in the equation of ‘the people’ with ‘the working class. There was a corresponding shift in the relationship between the state and the working class. The Whig legislation that followed 1832 resulted in an image of the state as tyrannical and Chartism represented the rapid upsurge and gradual ebbing away of this specific vision of the state.

It is not surprising that Stedman Jones’ view of Chartism has been subjected to sustained criticism. He never really confronts what is mean by ‘Chartist language’ though in a footnote he states that he is examining ‘only the public political language of the movement’. This restricted concept of language means that meaning imparted though symbolic action and context is not considered. One problem is that the public language of Chartism is not as coherent as Stedman Jones implies. There is no sustained treatment of the language of either the factory or anti-poor law movements that pioneered the rhetoric of violence that leaders brought into early Chartism. The language of these movements gave a string moral edge to denunciations of ‘millocrats’. Various forms of Christian reasoning were important to Chartist discourse and action. More significantly, Stedman Jones does not acknowledge the essential instability of the terms of public political discourse or the struggle over its meaning.

Most contested was the claim that Chartists rather than elite or middle-class leaders spoke for the people. Chartists believed in the possibility of attracting middle-class supporters in their ranks. Stedman Jones makes, almost in passing, two important points that need extending to understand Chartist attitudes towards the middle classes: first, he carefully distinguishes between the interests of various sections of the middle class. There was no possibility of an alliance with large-scale employers and Chartists directed their attention to the possible conversion of sections of the ‘shopocracy’ or lower middle class who were most dependent on working-class custom and who were most vulnerable to the encroachments of large-scale capital; and secondly, Chartists were uncompromising in their insistence that such middle-class allies join the radical movement on Chartist terms. Chartist leaders like O’Connor sought to incorporate a section of the middle class within the movement but demanded that shopkeepers accept the political programme, leadership and organisation of a working class movement. What was distinctive about the Chartist period was the assertion of this counter-hegemonic ambition.

For Stedman Jones, the crucial point is that Chartist ideology was not founded on a complete understanding of the nature of capitalist exploitation. However, to move from this position to the notion that the movement was not a ‘class’ movement or that it lacked class consciousness reflects the way in which he measures class. Stedman Jones measures a pre-Marxist movement for democratic political rights against a Marxist theory over which the working class had inheritance rights largely in retrospect and discovers that certain things do not fit. The problem remains as to whether there is a fit between the ‘social’ and political language and ideology and how such a fit might be ordered. Wide diversities in the organisation of production and in the form of payment during this period makes moving from description of the social relations of production to discussion of political language difficult. For Stedman Jones, at the heart of Chartism there is a social vision that was essentially artisanal in inspiration. The resonance of the term ‘independent’ was more than a faint echo of excluded Tory squires in the eighteenth century, but was a term deployed across a series of overlapping discourses about gender differences, imperialism, economic and social status and citizenship claims. A general concern for the progressive loss of the last vestiges of artisanal independence and security found expression within Chartist language and action.

Stedman Jones rightly looked to the national rather than a sectional shift in the perceptions of working people to explain Chartism’s decline, though he located this shift within a more or less autonomous political sphere. Yet Chartists refused to separate the social from the political; they regarded social relations of domination and subordination as ultimately enforced through the agency of the state. This understanding allowed Chartists to integrate a series of social, industrial and cultural demands within an all-embracing political movement. By directly attention at the changing face of the state, Stedman Jones makes a major advance towards understanding the erosion of this integrated vision. The slowing down of the introduction of local police forces and the softening of the more unacceptable features of the new poor law constituted a mellowing or ‘softening’ of the earlier aggressiveness of the state.

It is certainly questionable whether Stedman Jones sustains the argument that there was an orchestrated retreat of the state in the service of a moralised capitalism by Sir Robert Peel and whether this was itself sufficient to disarm the Chartists. First, he treats the state as more or les autonomous and so ignores the range of accommodation strategies pursued within civil society. Changes in government postures were mediated locally and various social, economic and cultural aims were detached from the highly politicised core of Chartism. Secondly, he maintains that as a coherent political vision, Chartism began to disintegrate in the early 1840s. The notion that the prosperity of mid-century undermined Chartism no longer seems tenable. However, Chartism’s decline also pre-dated the legislation most crucial to undermining the Chartist argument that key social reforms were impossible without a parliament elected on the basis of universal manhood suffrage. The reforming impulse of government and the conciliatory attitudes of the middle class were limited as the repressive character of events in 1848 amply illustrated.

By 1848, Chartists faced a government that was confident in its exercise of power, secured by the reform settlement of 1832 and the loyalty of the military. The fine blending of repression and concession and the firm posture of preparedness without needless provocation exposed the limitations of Chartism’s dominant strategy of action. The repeated failures of national petitions, mass demonstrations and general conventions eroded confidence in a repertoire of constitutionalist mobilisation within the terms of a language Stedman Jones has so critically illuminated. The experience of defeat as well as the tactical retreat of the state structured working-class motions of what was possible in the 1840s. For Stedman Jones, Chartism marked the final flourishing of a certain type of popular movement that was neither socialist in its ideology nor indicative of an emergent socialist direction within working-class politics. The non-socialist preoccupations and innate ‘conservatism’ of this class and the discontinuities within the peculiar history of British socialism is what impressed Stedman Jones.

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