Friday, 14 September 2007

Revisiting Chartist historiography: On Class

Until recently, few writers have questioned the definition of Chartism as a class movement. The language of class is to be found in all three of the main kinds of historical writing about Chartism: accounts by participants, by mainstream historians and by historians and publicists involved in the labour movement. This division is important in three respects. First, it means that those involved in constructing the narrative of Chartism did so for different reasons and with differing intellectual and political agendas. Secondly, these agendas may result in distortions within the historical frameworks established. For example, a mainstream historian may be seeking to establish an ‘objective’ version of the past while a historian in the labour movement may be examining Chartist as a precursor of the modern Labour Party. Each will construct their history from their own political perspective. Finally, all historians are limited, in part at least, by the accounts of participants who often had their own political axe to grind and who often wrote with the advantage (or disadvantage) of hindsight.

The validity of these claims can be demonstrated by means of representative, if brief, references to the observations of contemporaries and historians. There was little doubt among contemporaries that Chartism represented an important leap in working class consciousness, as expressed in a growing identity of interests and opposition to other social classes. Some, such as Carlyle, Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Kingsley argued that social distress largely underpinned the rise of the movement. Marx and Engels also emphasised the social factor[1]. For example, Engels[2] wrote in The Condition of the Working Class in England: “Chartism is of an essentially social nature, a class movement. The ‘Six Points’, which for the Radical Bourgeois are the beginning and end of the matter…are, for the proletarian, a mere means to further ends. ‘Political power our means, social happiness our end,’ is now the clearly formulated war-cry of the Chartists…”

It is important to note, especially in view of Gareth Steadman Jones’ characterisation of Chartist historiography as offering a predominantly ‘social’ interpretation of the movement, that many contemporaries, participants and historians did not neatly compartmentalise their views into either ‘social’ or ‘political’. Robert George Gammage, Feargus O’Connor, Bronterre O’Brien and many other leaders saw Chartism as rooted in all manner of political, cultural, social and economic experiences, campaigns, struggles and perceptions, often of a class-based kind. Gammage, whose history was originally issued in serial form in 1854 and who expressed few sympathies with O’Connor and ‘physical force’ methods, clearly assumed the central importance of multi-faceted class experience and political independence to the Chartists.

This is evident in several respects. First, Gammage argued that the middle classes had practised political deception since the 1832 Reform Act on a grand scale and, for the most part could no longer be trusted. Secondly, he provided numerous examples and criticisms of middle class ‘social tyranny’ that had mushroomed alongside acts of political betrayal. There was, for example, the attempt by the Anti-Corn Law League to divert Chartists from their primary goal of manhood suffrage. This had been prevented, Gammage argued, because of the ‘outraged feelings’ of workers towards ‘the social tyranny’ of League manufacturers. “The masses look on the enfranchised classes, whom they behold reposing on the couch of opulence and contrast that opulence with the misery of their own conditions. Abolish Monarchy tomorrow, and leave the fundamental relations between capital and labour on their present footing, and you will have accomplished virtually nothing.[3]” Thirdly, he argued that the middle classes had now joined the aristocracy in a common political and socio-economic oppression of the ‘people’: “the great power that now leagued with the Aristocracy against the millions, and which was more powerful than its brother in the cause of political proscription, was the middle class.” In effect, as argued by Bronterre O’Brien, the House of Commons represented “the fellows who live by profits, who lived by usury…It represented men who had no interest in the welfare of the country.”[4] Finally, Gammage suggests that it was in the interests of the people to unite. This demanded that the Chartists maintained their independence in the face of middle class advances.

Gammage’s class perspective found its way into the early twentieth century histories of Chartism. For Mark Hovell in 1918 and Julius West in 1920, wide-ranging class grievances and demands were at the heart of the Chartist agenda. Hovell[5] saw Chartism as “an effort towards democracy and social equality” and a “strong protest against the autocracy both of the landlord and the capitalist.” Chartism further marked, “a real new departure in our social and political history. It was the first movement of modern times that was engineered and controlled by working men…It was the first genuinely democratic movement for social reform in modern history.” For West[6], class divisions and anti-middle class feelings were essential, if unwelcome, aspects of Chartism.

More recent accounts of the movement, especially Cole, Briggs, Ward, David Jones and Edward Royle have also highlighted the centrality of Chartist attempts to draw upon the class consciousness of working class men. Apart from Jones, these authors have not paid detailed attention to the feelings of working class women. G.D.H. Cole[7] wrote, “Hunger and hatred – these were the forces that made Chartism a mass movement of the British working class. Hunger gnawed at the hearts of the people, and seemed to gnaw the more fiercely as, under the spur of the new industrialism, the means of producing wealth increased…” In 1959, Asa Briggs[8] noted, “A main theme in Chartist history was the attempt to create a sense of class unity”. The detailed local studies in Chartist Studies reinforced Briggs’ national observations. Edward Royle[9] extended the notion of class-consciousness into the areas of leisure and cultural norms and values. Similarly, David Jones in Chartism and the Chartists had earlier explored the cultural dimensions of class with respect to Chartist attitudes to religion, education and temperance.

There is a longstanding historiographical tradition strongly disposed towards the class-based nature of Chartism. However, where does this tradition stand at the beginning of the twenty-first century? It is clear that during the Chartist years, sources of working class unity generally outweighed sources of division and fragmentation. Dorothy Thompson[10] writes, “What is astonishing, in the light of later developments, is the extent to which the movement was able to incorporate people of different regional and ethnic origins, different genders and different occupations into a national campaign involving millions. The unifying factors were primarily a sense of class, a unifying leadership and a nationally distributed journal.” The definition of ‘class’ has been moved away simply from identification with the ‘economic’. Historians now have a more sophisticated and acute picture and understanding of the political, cultural and linguistic dimensions of class. Class had a many-sided character. Chartism was a movement whose language at all levels was class language and in which the working classes alone believed in the concepts of universal suffrage, the rights of man and of an equality of citizenship. Class also informed leisure and culture and class domination was not confined to the workplace. All aspects of social life – housing, shops, drinking places, recreational and instructional institutions, churches and chapel seating – were segregated along class lines.

The accelerating pace of capitalist transformation of the workplace and workplace relations ensured that class was central to questions concerning independence, skills, living standards and the wages and protection workers received. The nature of this change differed and class in its economic form did not assume a single and uniform expression and meaning within Chartism. Chartist speakers and writers did not use the term ‘class’ in the same way on all occasions. Sometimes it meant only waged workers; sometimes it included ‘good’ employers. Historians are increasingly aware of the complexity of usage of, and to the contextualised engagement between, flexible and often interchangeable terms such as ‘people’, the ‘useful classes’ and the ‘working class’.

The strength of the class-based historiography of Chartism has meant that competing approaches have exercised far less academic appeal[11]. By the later 1970s, a number of criticisms of the idea that early radicalism had a distinct class basis had begun to appear. Iowerth Prothero[12] emphasised that many early radicals saw themselves primarily as artisans. The Canadian historian Craig Calhoun[13] contended that it was a movement of pre-industrial communities under threat and that it was mistaken to see radicalism in class terms. Despite their recent popularity, the ‘linguistic’ interpretations of Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce with their emphasis on the extra-class notion of the ‘people’ have largely failed the test of ‘disciplined historical discourse of the proof’.

Stedman Jones[14] argued that to determine people’s values and beliefs, greater attention should be paid to the precise language they used. His detailed examination of Chartist writing led him to claim[15], “Chartism was a political movement and political movements cannot satisfactorily be defined in terms of the anger and disgruntlement of disaffected social groups or even the consciousness of class.” Chartist language made little explicit reference to economically defined classes or to groups exploited in the workplace. Rather, Chartists used a political language and saw their task as[16] “the ending of a monopoly situation in which all other forms of property were afforded political and legal support while that of labour was left at the mercy of those who monopolised the state and law.” Hence theirs was a political movement, aimed at achieving political reform of a corrupt state, and it should not be interpreted by subsequent generations of historians in terms of social class. The major problem with Stedman Jones’ work is that it operates on an unduly narrow Marxist definition and standard (‘true’ test) of class. It is based on a very narrow range of evidence that, in turn, is capable of alternative class-based reading and is insufficiently aware of the importance of context in setting and changing the meanings of long-standing words and demands. He provides too literal an approach to the study of language and ideas effectively missing the centrality of class to the Chartist movement. He underestimates the role of the ‘social’ and mistakenly portrays the movement from Chartism to Liberalism in far too easy, untroubled and narrowly political terms.

Patrick Joyce’s case as presented in Visions of the People[17] is extremely weak. He not only adopts Stedman Jones’ unsatisfactory definition of class but also, and far more damagingly, rests his ‘populist’ case as applied to the cotton districts of north-west England on exceedingly slight empirical evidence. The core of Joyce’s case against the class-based nature of Chartism is contained in eleven pages[18]. His case relies heavily on the speeches and writings of J.R. Stephens, William Aitken[19] of Ashton (who is read selectively in relation to the acute class divisions of Ashton in 1830s and 1840s) and Benjamin Grime’s observations on Oldham radicalism. He fails to recognise the centrality of class in the languages of such prominent north-west Chartists as Leach, Pilling and McDouall. Joyce also fails to engage with the vast amount of evidence in support of the class-based nature of north-west Chartism. Sweeping and extremely partial ‘populist’ conclusions are constructed on an unduly literal reading of language and the languages and meanings of the ‘people’ are not taken into contextualised engagement with languages of class. In addition, his underestimation of the issue of class-based independence to the Chartists on Ashton-under-Lyne and elsewhere results in Joyce presenting a highly idealised, consensual account of the relations between Chartists and Liberals in south-east Lancashire and north-east Cheshire[20].

This ‘deconstruction’ of class has had both positive and negative effects. Positively, it has been useful in questioning established orthodoxies and recognising that there is no automatic relationship between the social structure and political movements. What is disappointing is that the prominence given to language in these accounts does not help when examining the complex connections between economic, social, cultural and political change. The ‘linguistic turn’ applied by Stedman Jones and Joyce is unduly restrictive[21]. It does not deny the existence of class but is only prepared to admit very special languages as languages of class. Only if people use a language that explicitly refers to economic exploitation between classes do they allow that they might have stumbled across class. However, many sentiments and values may express feelings relating to the existence of class divisions in an indirect or oblique way.

The idea that Chartism can be explained without reference to class is a non-starter. However, politics cannot be reduced to class either. A Marxist perspective would lead historians to expect Chartism to be based on conflict between middle and working classes. This sometimes happened but politics frequently cut across classes. Middle and working class radicals united as ‘the people’ against the allegedly corrupt aristocracy. Nevertheless, class did determine the range of life opportunities and political choices available to the individual. Class was constructed through the operation of the market and through political debate. Language, whether political or not, shaped experiences and helped determine possible actions. It was not just a product of wider social forces; it helped to create them by determining the range of possibilities available at any given time. In the era of post-revisionism, there is a place for both class and language[22].


[1] This is especially the case in K. Marx and F. Engels On Britain, Moscow, 1953.

[2] F. Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, Leipzig, 1845, translated and edited by W.O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner, Blackwell, 1971, page 267.

[3] R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, London, 1969, pages 9, 25, 102-3.

[4] R. G. Gammage History of the Chartist Movement 1837-1854, London, 1969, page 119.

[5] Mark Hovell The Chartist Movement, Manchester University Press, 1918, pages 7, 307 and 311.

[6] Julius West A History of the Chartist Movement, London, 1920, pages 63-67, 72 and 173-81. West was fiercely anti-O’Connor and pro-Lovett in his work and in favour of an alliance between working and middle class reformers like the Complete Suffrage Union in 1842.

[7] G.D.H. Cole Chartist Portraits, Macmillan, 1941, pages 1.

[8] Asa Briggs (ed.) Chartist Studies, Macmillan, 1959, page 4.

[9] Edward Royle Chartism, Longman, 1980, page 80. The current third edition was published in 1996 and continues to sustain this position.

[10] Dorothy Thompson Outsiders: Class, Gender and Nation, Verso, 1993 page 36.

[11] Mike Savage and Andrew Miles The Remaking of the British Working Class 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, pages 10-20 examines the ‘linguistic turn’ against social class and responses to this.

[12] Iowerth Prothero Artisans and Politics: the Life and Times of John Gast, Dawson, 1979 looks at radicalism and trade unionism in London in the 1810s and 1820s.

[13] Craig Calhoun The Question of Class Struggle, Blackwell, 1982 places the emphasis on the value of ‘community’ as a determining reason for emerging radicalism among working people.

[14] Gareth Stedman Jones ‘The Language of Chartism’, James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson (eds.) The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working Class Radicalism and Culture 1830-1860, Macmillan, 1982, pages 3-58 and in an extended version as ‘Rethinking Chartism’, in his Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832-1982, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pages 90-178.

[15] Gareth Stedman Jones Rethinking Chartism’, in his Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832-1982, Cambridge University Press, 1983, page 96.

[16] Gareth Stedman Jones Rethinking Chartism’, in his Languages of class: Studies in English working class history 1832-1982, Cambridge University Press, 1983, page 109.

[17] Patrick Joyce Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1840-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1991 but also see his later work in Democratic Subjects. The Self and the Social in Nineteenth-Century England, Cambridge University Press, 1994

[18] Patrick Joyce Visions of the People: Industrial England and the question of class 1840-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1991, pages 33-37 and 94-99.

[19] William Aitken was born 1814 in Dunbar, Scotland. Initially, he worked as a weaver but moved to Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire and became schoolmaster and ‘physical force’ Chartist. He was contacted by Mormons and left Britain in 1842 for Nauvoo, Illinois where there was a community of Icarian or Cabetite communists as well as Mormons. He returned home after violence broke out in community and wrote of his experiences in A Journey up the Mississippi River from the north to Nauvoo, city of Latter Day Saints, Ashton, 1845. He was elected Grand Master of Oddfellows in Lancashire in 1846. Aitken is believed to have been a paid agent of Southern Confederacy during Civil War. He died, probably by suicide, in Ashton in 1869. Robert G. Hall and Stephen Roberts William Aitken: The Writings of a Nineteenth Century Working Man, Tameside, 1996 reprint his Remembrances and Struggles of a Working Man for Bread and Liberty and some of his poems.

[20] E.F. Biagnini and A.J. Reid (eds.) Currents of Radicalism: Popular Radicalism, Organised Labour and Party Politics in Britain 1850-1914, Cambridge University Press, 1991 and Miles Taylor The Decline of British Radicalism 1847-1860, Oxford University Press, 1995 forcibly stress continuity of attitudes across the 1850 divide.

[21] On the post-post-modern critique of Steadman Jones et al, see James Epstein ‘Rethinking the Categories of Working-Class History’ and ‘Turn, Turn, Turn: Victorian Britain’s Postmodern Season’, in his In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain, Stanford University Press, 2003, pages 15-33 and 34-56 respectively.

[22] Rohan McWilliam Popular Politics in Nineteenth-Century England, Routledge, 1998 examines all the major debates and takes the arguments forward into post-revisionism (the new orthodoxy?).


Anonymous said...

Im doing Chartism at the moment for A-level history and I found this extremely helpful. Even though I find the incident at Kennington Common in 1848 the biggest anti climax in British history, I am beginning to appreciate the movement and the speculation around its drive.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting study of the historiography of the Chartist movement