Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Aspects of Chartism: The Final Phase 1

R.G. Gammage may have been a little premature when travelling around the country in the 1850s lecturing on the movement’s failure. Chartism persisted for a further decade, displaying vigour in some areas like Halifax but it had effectively ceased to be a mass movement. In 1852, Marx observed that the Chartists were[1] “…so completely disorganised and scattered, and at the same time so short of useful people, that they must either fall completely to pieces and degenerate into cliques....or they must be reconstituted.”

Nevertheless, its journals still flourished and Ernest Jones[2] and his Charter Socialism achieved some support, especially in London among craftsmen resentful at the growing influence of trade unionism. Chartists continued to be active in local politics but by 1860, organised Chartism was dead. The last convention gathered in 1858 and two years later the NCA was formally wound up. This view of Chartism in the 1850s is reflected in the writings of historians. For J. T. Ward it was a ‘finale’[3], for A. R. Schoyen, a ‘retreat’[4] and for David Jones the ‘last days’[5]. This material considers three questions. In what ways was the radicalism of the 1850s a continuation of the 1840s? What happened to Chartism in the late 1840s and 1850s? Why did it fail to achieve its objectives?

Why did Chartism decline?

Historians are broadly in agreement that the Chartists did not threaten the authorities after 1848 though the events of that year represented a greater challenge than use to be thought and that some king of organisation was maintained for another decade. However, the fact of sharp overall decline in uncontested. Why this decline occurred is a subject of considerable debate. Eric Evans[6] identifies six arguments that have received particular attention among historians.

Argument

Counter-argument

1
The end of the severe economic depressions that had brought the masses out on to the streets
Certainly severe depressions such as those experienced in 1839 and 1842 did disappear. However, it is difficult to prove that living standards among working people as a whole increased significantly until the 1870s and 1880s

2
Governments wee more conscious of the ‘social question’ than before and there was a ‘softening of the state’ with the passage of legislation designed to reduce social tension and class hostility. The state became increasingly self-confident during a period of economic boom and this helped to further fragment Chartism
The amount of legislation designed to improve conditions was limited and the legislation often had little practical effect until the 1860s and especially the 1870s. The new Poor Law remained a symbol of degradation and disgrace that humiliated those who needed to use it. State confidence was easily over-exaggerated, as the great soul-searching that took place over Britain’s early failures in the Crimean War (1853-56) showed

3
O’Connor’s credibility was shattered by his climb-down in 1848 and this led to further disputes among Chartist leaders

O’Connor’s powers may have been in decline but there were other leaders, especially Ernest James and Bronterre O’Brien who remained vigorous and committed. They also had a clear agenda.

4
Chartism had failed in each of its three phases despite considerable effort by working people. After these reverses, there was no stomach for further mass agitation or revolutionary preparation
Some Chartists, such as the supporters of O’Brien remained committed to the cause and were as revolutionary in their attitudes as any people in the 1830s and 1840s. They joined socialist and extreme radical groups in Europe with the aim of creating a genuinely proletarian international revolution

5
Economically depressed skilled workers, especially hand-loom weavers had always been at the centre of the Chartist agitation. As their numbers declines, with them went the motive force of Chartism
The importance of one working group should not be over-exaggerated as has the speed of its decline. Other skilled workers remained and could have revived Chartism as a mass threat is other conditions had been right

6
Chartism was betrayed by the ‘aristocracy of labour’. Those who had supported Chartism in the 1830s and 1840s were frustrated by the lack of success and looked to other organisations such as trade unions, co-operatives and friendly societies, other self-help groups and even mainstream political parties to advance their interests. Without their active involvement, Chartism was bound to wither.
This exaggerates the importance of one, fairly small group of workers. In any case, many members of this group had not been among the strongest supporters of Chartism in the 1840s. Their defection was, therefore, of limited importance to a working-class organisation

Historians, despite having different political views, nonetheless stress similar factors. Those sympathetic to working-class political organisations stress the power of the state as an important reason why the Chartists did not achieve more. Those who resist class-based analyses also point to a more self-confident government’s adoption of laissez faire policies as the key to long-term economic growth and therefore the decline of protest movements. Similarly, those who want to rehabilitate O’Connor from 1840 onwards recognise that both his own powers and his political authority took a fatal turn in 1848.


[1] New York Daily Tribune, 25th August 1852.

[2] John Saville Ernest Jones: Chartist, London, 1952 is a useful collection of his writings with an incisive introduction. Miles Taylor Ernest Jones, Oxford University Press, 2003 should be regarded as the best study. Joseph O. Baylen and Norbert J. Grossman (eds.) Biographical Dictionary of Modern British Radicals since 1770, volume 2: 1830-1870, Brighton, 1984, pages 263-268 is a useful, brief biography.

[3] J.T. Ward Chartism, London, 1973, pages 220-234.

[4] A.R. Schoyen The Chartist Challenge: a Portrait of George Julian Harney, London, 1958.

[5] David Jones Chartism and the Chartists, London, 1975, pages 171-180.

[6] Eric Evans Chartism Longmans, 2000, pages 116-118.

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