The London Democrats and the ‘Grand Uprising’ of 1839

Submitted by AWL on 20 March, 2008 - 4:18 Author: Chris Ford

The popular image of Victorian consists of scenes of upper class decadence, lower class destitution and a stifling morality. Working people are passive, society is stable, and the best they can hope for is a rich philanthropist to save Oliver Twist from hardship. That is a fabrication, the creation of historical spin doctors.

“Nonetheless the revolutionary slogans and methods of Chartism are even today, if critically dissected, infinitely higher than the sickly sweet eclecticism of the MacDonalds and the economic obtuseness of the Webbs. ……In this sense the British working class can and must see in Chartism not only its past but also its future. As the Chartists tossed the sentimental preachers of 'moral force' aside and gathered the masses behind the banner of revolution, so the British proletariat is faced with ejecting reformists, democrats and pacifists from its midst and rallying to the banner of a revolutionary overturn……History is liquidating Liberalism and prepares to liquidate the pseudo-Labour pacifism precisely so as to give a second birth to Chartism on new, immeasurably broader historical foundations. That is where you have the real national tradition of the British labour movement!“

Two traditions: the seventeenth-century revolution and Chartism, from Leon Trotsky Writings On Britain

The popular image of Victorian consists of scenes of upper class decadence, lower class destitution and a stifling morality. Working people are passive, society is stable, and the best they can hope for is a rich philanthropist to save Oliver Twist from hardship. That is a fabrication, the creation of historical spin doctors.

In truth that the period was full of bitter class struggle, through which efforts were made to create a different society from the modern capitalism then being forged in the industrial revolution. For a decade (1839-48) the establishment was besieged by mass mobilisations for political and social reforms — for the People’s Charter.

The Chartist movement was the first national workers’ movement. Its traditions and goals stand in stark contrast to the labour movement and leaders we have today.

In 1839 Britain witnessed an unparalleled revolutionary upsurge of the working class. Among the most important figures of the period was George Julian Harney, a founder of the London Democratic Association (LDA), a pioneering organisation of revolutionary socialism.

The LDA has remained all but forgotten by the labour movement, and ws even overlooked by the post-war left which rediscovered Chartism. The lack of recognition for the LDA stands in sharp contrast to the figures such as Robert Owen, well recognised for his role in the birth of socialism. The idea that the LDA actually pioneered social revolutionism ten years before Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto has barely been considered by 20th century historians.

Julian Harney said that the LDA had a distinct place in history. The “Democrats went beyond all other parties in the avowal of the extreme but righteous principles of political and social equality. They were Chartists, but they were ‘Chartists and something more’.” At the start of the 20th century the historian and member of the Social Democratic Federation Theodore Rothstein duly recognised them as the “most remarkable of all the organisations then existing” and Harney as “the first (one may almost call him) Bolshevik”.

At the start of the 21st century, as every effort is being made to rule out the working class as an agent of an alternative society Harney’s advice about the necessity of “keeping alive and promulgating the principles of which the Association had been the representative” still holds true.

Uniting generations of revolutionaries

The London Democratic Association was established on 10 August 1838. It was a reconstitution on a pan-London basis of the East London Democratic Association, formed on 29 January 1837.

The London Democrats who came together in 1837 stood in direct opposition to the moderate London Working Men’s Association, led by William Lovett, a founder of Chartism. Lovett was identified with the “moral force” wing of the movement who believed they could secure reforms by “moral persuasion”. The LDA objected not only to their reformism but also to their advocacy of class collaboration with the middle-class. In this period the middle class comprised sections of the capitalist class, who despite their economic power and the electoral Reform Act of 1832 remained excluded from access to political power.

The LDA reached a core membership of three thousand, who were overwhelmingly working class. It had an influence far wider than London — with Democratic Associations being formed in at least ten other areas including Leeds, Norwich, Hull, Nottingham and parts of Scotland.

The term democrat in this time was identified with the revolutionary and republican political tradition. The LDA had deep roots, perhaps more than any other body in 1839. It brought together a range of activists, uniting young and old generations.

Allen Davenport, aged 64 in 1839, was a member in the LDA Shoreditch division and had been active in metropolitan radicalism since 1818. Involved in the insurrectionary “Cato Street Conspiracy” he described himself as an “out and out Spencean”. The continued influence of the radical ideas of Thomas Spence was ensured by Davenport’s publication of a biography of Spence in 1836.

Another veteran was the sixty-five year old Thomas Preston, a member of the Jacobin-inspired London Corresponding Society. He was active with Spence and continued the group after Spence’s death in 1814. Preston was directly involved in insurrectionary activity and after the Spa Fields riots was charged with High Treason. He was part of the movement towards a rising in 1820 that ended with the “Cato Street conspiracy” (unlike some of the other conspirators, who were hung, he escaped with a three month sentence in Tothill Fields prison).

Charles Neesom simlarly had a lucky escape after Cato Street. An active Spencean, he worked closely with Davenport, was deeply active in early trade unionism, and was active in the Owenite National Union of the Working Classes. Along with the young Harney, Neesom resigned from the London Working Men’s Association in March 1838, and at 52 he was founder of the East London Democratic Association with Harney and Devenport.

Along with these veterans there were also: Samuel Waddington (another Cato Street survivor); Henry Ross, who had been involved in the Glasgow struggles of 1819; Thomas Ireland, a veteran of the free press struggles; and James Coombe, editor of the London Democrat, who also broke with Lovett.

Less known are the pioneer women of the LDA such as Mary Ireland, Elizabeth Turner, Marthya Dymock and Elizabeth Neesom, who became secretary of the London Female Democratic Association formed in April 1839.

Internationalism was prevalent and exemplified in the figures of Polish revolutionaries such as Major Beniowski, a survivor of the 1830 Polish rising, and Martha Schellvietinghoff. United in the LDA was a wealth of experience and thought spanning working class radicalism inspired by the impact of the French Revolution, through the struggles of post-Reform Act England of the 1830s. But if one name more than any other was associated with the Democratic Association, it was that of George Julian Harney.

Harney was an ex-sailor who grew up in the slums of Deptford and Bermondsey. At twenty-two he was already a veteran of the movement. Active around the National Union of the Working Classes he became involved in the “war of the unstamped press”, resulting in two sentences in London prisons for distributing the Poor Man’s Guardian, and a third in Derby goal.

Strongly influenced by Bronterre O’Brien his “guide, philosopher and friend”, he was steeped in the throught of the French Revolution. By 1839 Harney had already risen to national prominence in Chartism; he became a bridge between the different generations, and his internationalism allowed a unity of vernacular and international revolutionary ideas.

Revolutionaries and respectables

Writing on the motives which led to the creation of the LDA, Harney stated: “It is well known to the country that no efficient organisation of the masses has been established in the Metropolis, since the dissolution of the National Union of the Working Classes. True, there are in existence Clubs, Societies, and Associations, professing to represent the Working Classes; but this is a delusion, as evidenced in the simple fact, that these Societies are composed of a select few of the ‘respectables’.”

The meaning of this repeated repudiation of the “respectables” by the LDA has been the subject of some speculation. Reports of the LDA meetings describe the crowds as “mechanics and labourers”, or as “destitute-looking individuals”, or of miserable appearance”. Whilst accounts by the police spies tend to reflect prejudiced views of the poor, there is no doubt that when Harney talked of the “respectables” he meant those “men raised above the common lot of their order”.

Harney believed they “cannot sympathise with their sufferings, and, as a matter of course are unfit, in the days of difficulty and danger, to guide the energies of the people in those bold movements which a nation must make, if that nation would be free”.

The LDA still included in its founding Address the statement that: “In the same spirit of pure democracy, we hold out the hand of fellowship to all who will sincerely co-operate with us to achieve the objects we have in view. We exclude no man because he may be wealthy”. Unity in ideas was crucial for the LDA, it was not simply about sociological background.

Capitalist society, with its industrial revolution had brought onto the stage two different classes — the working class and the bourgeoisie — with antagonistic interests. But both were engaged in a struggle with the same enemy — the English aristocracy. Until 1832 the bourgeoisie had maintained an tenuous alliance with the working class, resulting the Reform Act of that year, enacted under the real shadow of revolution in the “Days of May”.

But the new reformed House of Commons, under a Whig government, had in turn waged an unrelenting class war on the working class in the process of its efforts to reshape old aristocratic England to the needs of capital. The question of relations with the “middle class” was decisive not only in determining a strategy for the day, but a vision of the future.

The London Working Men’s Association remained of the opinion that it was necessary to collaborate with the middle class, and placed some importance on maintaining an alliance with the so-called “Radical “ group of MPs in the House of Commons as well as Daniel O’Connell’s Irish MPs.

According to Harney, the LDA differed “as to the modus operandi; they repudiated all reliance on the middle class and all connection with the shopocracy”. The LDA was established to “supply the deficiency hitherto existing of an efficient organisation of the masses, and enable them, through that organisation, to bear the whole weight of their mighty power…”.

The LDA deliberately set out to encourage the widest possible participation of the mass of workers as opposed to the elitism which marred many of the moderate bodies. In response to their critics they reponded:

“It will be asked by the ‘respectables’, ‘will you then unite with the immoral and depraved?’ No! For the immoral and depraved will not unite with us. But who are the immoral and depraved? You (the ‘respectables’) say the poor, who seek relief from their cares and sufferings in the public house; but we say the rich who cause this suffering, and consequent degredation, by the oppressive laws and institutions which they have enacted and upheld”.

This rebuff was an important distinction between the LDA and the petty bourgeois radicals and the so called moralism of the period. The solution to the problem of alcoholism was to “remove the causes of intemperance by crushing the immorality of the rich (who cause the immorality of the poor), the immorality of oppressing, plundering and murdering their fellow creatures”. The LDA had no qualms on meeting in pubs, nor did they demand an expensive shilling a month subscription as the London Workingmen’s Association did, but simply a voluntary sum “according to their means”.

LDA Organisation

The organisational form of the LDA was “calculated to carry out and to direct the extensive combination of the masses which we have in view”. The structure was one of “divisions subdivided into sections of twenty five – the sections to be directed by a Leader, and each division to return two Tribunes to the Council, who guide and direct the whole”. It was a self-governing structure. In the “Council we have provided the members at large with the power of effectually controlling its proceedings, as all members of the Association, present at the sittings of the Council, have the right of voting on all questions brought under its consideration”.

The ambition of the LDA was “reducing in practice the beautiful theories of Babeuf, Buonarrotti, Bronterre, &c., by making the Tribunes the deliberators and perfectors of the will of the people, whilst with the people themselves is left the ultimate decision, by their retaining in their own hands the sovereign authority”.

There was a similarity to the organisation which was led by the French communists Babeuf and Buonarroti in 1796 in their efforts to defend and extend the French Revolution. The role of their “agents”, the revolutionary agitators, has a similarity to the that of the LDA’s Tribunes.

However, the organisational ideal of the LDA was not a secret conspiracy like Babeuf’s but more like the earlier self-governing Clubs and Communes of the Parisian masses. It seems to have followed the model of an earlier phase of English Jacobinism, in the form of the London Corresponding Society.

In Thomas Preston they had a living link to that body, which also had local self-governing Divisions and delegates who were subject to the right of recall by local Divisions. This self-governing democracy contrasts sharply to the modern day labour movement and many of the socialist sects of today.

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