Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Chartism: A Question of Interpretation 6

Turn and turn again

Chartism, in this analysis, was a populist political movement of ‘the people’ rather than an economic ‘class’ movement. ‘Class’, it appears, has fallen from favour. Revisionist historians have become increasingly suspicious of the priority previous historians of Chartism gave to social and economic considerations. New political and cultural agendas were being explored[1]. One of the main reasons for this process was the reappraisal of the concept of ‘the industrial revolution’. In the 1980s, historians moved away from the notion of the industrial revolution as a dynamic process towards ‘change in slow motion’[2]. They emphasised that urban artisans, rural domestic workers and factory operatives coexisted in a complex and fluid economic structure and that the move to factory production was cautious and was far from complete by the late 1830s. There was little common national experience among workers and, it is maintained, appeals to working class unity at anything more than the level of particular communities, however much they may attract historians, were not a major facet of contemporary experience. This diverse and pluralist nature of social identity and relationships has led some post-structuralist historians to focus on the ‘representational’, the construction of identity and social reality through language and discourse. This post-modern approach sees language, either as rhetoric or narrative, rather than class as a means of uniting workers whose physical conditions and experience of industrialisation significantly differed[3].

Patrick Joyce is among the most influential practitioners of British social history in its modernist manifestations. Three things have remained constant in his writings: first, Joyce seeks to incorporate insights and concepts drawn from other disciplines especially sociology shunning the intellectual parochialism that characterises much British social history; secondly, he argues that the pronounced emphasis on conflict in the writing of modern British social history is misplaced, undervaluing the significance of accommodation and shared values between employers and workers, elite politicians and their popular following. Historians have failed to recognise the interdependence between capital and labour, the negotiated landscape of compromise and reciprocity central to nineteenth-century industrial relations; and finally, his suspicion of Marxist interpretive categories is longstanding and he maintains that other, broader notions such as ‘the people’ or ‘humanity’ are more indicative of contemporary understanding that the language of class. If class fails to describe how contemporaries constructed their own identities, this is because, in part, the Industrial Revolution did not generate an undifferentiated ‘proletariat’.

In practice, Joyce expands on Stedman Jones; work arguing that what was distinctive about Chartist language was how little class analysis figured in the movement’s public rhetoric. Using the sermons of J.R. Stephens, Joyce draws attention to the powerful linkage between popular radicalism and the rhetoric of popular religion and morality. It is a ‘populist’ as opposed to ‘class’ explanation that is at the heart of Joyce’s writings. The non-class specific character of popular radicalism’s language helps to explain Liberalism’s ability to mobilise working-class adherents: populist tones underpin this shift to political allegiance. Joyce is especially interested in the transitional links among popular radicalism and Liberalism with late-nineteenth century socialism. He notes the romantic element that runs from Chartism to socialism and stresses the prominent role of the hero-politician, the romantic gentleman leader represented in Chartism by O’Connor and Ernest Jones and the fact that this did not die out but was refashioned in the personalised leadership of John Bright and William Gladstone. For Joyce, Gladstone was the greatest exemplar of what he calls ‘moral populism’, ‘the embodiment of the moral claims of the people’s cause’. He discerns the same impulse of moral righteousness in the Independent Labour Party so smoothing the transition from radical Liberalism to socialism. Populism in its various reincarnations structured key continuities within and across popular politics.

This is important for two reasons. First, it helps to explain how ordinary people move from one popular movement to another: from Chartism to Gladstonian Liberalism or from Liberalism to socialism. Secondly, Joyce’s account of liberal-radicalism’s hold on ‘the people’ differs from that of Biagnini and Reid[4] who emphasis the real achievement of Gladstonian Liberalism as the key to winning working-class support. Popular Liberalism set out to make working people feel they were true citizens, symbolically included in the drama of national politics. Rather than being driven by a narrowly conceived notion of interest, Joyce by contrast views politics as embedded in networks of populist symbolic exchange that extends across different populist movements. The major problem with this perspective is that it risks obscuring what distinguished various political movements and ideologies. There were profound differences in the style of mobilisation and in tone between pre-Chartist and Chartist radicalism and Gladstonian Liberalism.

Whether Joyce’s populism is an advance on class remains an open question’ certainly aspects of popular culture and politics that class may obscure are brought more clearly into view. However, in the final analysis ‘populism’ like ‘class’ fails to capture the depth and diversity of popular experience.

The cultural approach to Chartism is not without substance. Historians have identified what can be called a Chartist culture. There were networks of schools, discussion groups, libraries, churches and other meeting places where politics could be debated and views shared. These served to inform, if not define the development and reception of the Chartist programme in the 1830s and 1840s. The ability of communities to take part in collective action depended on the particular construction of gender relations, skills and community bonding. Radical rhetoric was language in action, a cultural expression of deep-seated political, economic and social grievances. It was vibrant, highly ritualised, grounded in the streets as much as the discussion halls and essentially oral. Reading the ‘texts’, as post-structural historians would have us do, reinforces notions of continuity of radical action across the nineteenth century and neglects the dynamism and unpredictability of the movement. The Charter may have provided a unifying programme but locally and nationally the debate was a confused combination of rhetorics, organisations, agitations, constitutional cultures, rituals, symbols, iconographies and personalities. The Chartists may have found it difficult to establish a distinct identity but those historians who write Chartism off simply as a failure have not recognised the feelings and perceptions and aspirations of working people in the 1830s and 1840s and, arguably, today.

Interpretations of Chartism have changed radically in recent years. Miles Taylor summed up the situation in a synoptic article published in 1996[5]: ‘Dorothy Thompson and Gareth Stedman Jones can be said to have reached a common point of departure for a revised approach to the study of Chartism. Both are sceptical about explanations of Chartism which emphasised its peculiar local or occupational character, both rejected the view that Chartism was simply a protest movement, whether of a backward-looking or proto-socialist kind and both were concerned to bring out the specifically political content of the movement….Both historians emphasise the rational nature of Chartist arguments and ideas, stressing that this was an articulate popular movement based on a clearly defined set of political demands…Both see Chartism as a national movement, united by a common programme, a recognisable leadership and a widely disseminated popular press. This not only represents a break with the localism so characteristic of chartist studies in the 1960s but also moves beyond older preoccupation with the divisions within the chartist leadership…Finally, neither account sees Chartism as a spasmodic reaction to industrialisation or the trough in the trade cycle or a backward-looking reaction to a new urban society. While it may be difficult to disagree with this, Taylor does not attempt to assess whether newer interpretations that seek to rehabilitate O’Connor and emphasise Chartism as a potent national movement of working people to achieve radical political change are preferable to older ones that stressed Chartism’s weakness and divisions, the desperation of much of its activities and that much of what was good about Chartism came from its moral force, improving artisans. These issues may be unfashionable but they may not be wrong.

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[1] John Belchem ‘Beyond Chartist Studies: class, community and party in early Victorian popular politics’, in Derek Fraser (ed.) Cities, class and communication: Essays in honour of Asa Briggs, Hemel Hempstead, 1990 is a useful summary of some of the debates of the 1980s. Neville Kirk ‘Setting the standard: Dorothy Thompson, the discipline of historical context and the study of Chartism’, in Owen Ashton et al (eds.) The Duty of Discontent: Essays for Dorothy Thompson, 1996 is invaluable for following up on these debates as well as providing a vital analysis of a seminal figure in the development in how historians today view Chartism.

[2] On the nature of the ‘industrial revolution’ see Michael Fores ‘The Myth of a British Industrial Revolution’, History, volume 66, (1981) and A.E. Musson’s vigorous response ‘The British Industrial Revolution, History, volume 69, (1982) as a starting-point. Pat Hudson The Industrial Revolution, London, 1992 is a useful summary of research on economic and social matters, while R. Floud and P. Johnson (eds.) The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, three volumes, Cambridge University Press, 2004 is the most recent of which the first volume is most relevant.

[3] The post-modern approach to this period is best exemplified in the work of Patrick Joyce especially his Visions of the People, Cambridge, 1991 and Democratic subjects, Cambridge, 1994 and James Vernon Politics and the People, Cambridge, 1993 and the collection of papers he edited entitled Re-reading the constitution, Cambridge, 1996. Keith Jenkins On ‘What is History?’, London, 1995, Keith Jenkins (ed.) The Postmodern History Reader, London, 1997 and Keith Jenkins Refiguring History: new thoughts on an old discipline, Routledge, 2003 provide a valuable summary of thinking on this contentious area.

[4] E. F. Biagini and A. J. Reid (eds.) Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain 1850-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[5] M. Taylor ‘Rethinking the Chartists: Searching for Synthesis in the Historiography of Chartism’, The Historical Journal, volume 39 (1996), pages 484-485.

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