Revolutionary Chartism Part Six: "Our strategy is revolution"

Submitted by cathy n on 22 August, 2008 - 9:07 Author: Chris Ford

HM Hyndman, writing towards the end of the nineteenth century thought that “supposing the time had been ripe in England, as many then believed, for a great social revolution, one important fact stood in the way of both the political and physical force revolutionists. In all serious upheavals, previous… London had taken a leading part… This was not the case in the days of Chartism”.

The London Democratic Association (LDA) believed that it was in the metropolis “that the battle should be fought”; they knew they faced difficulties but they did seek solutions. The LDA’s stance is all but ignored by writers of the history, who point to “apathetic London”.

For the LDA the masses in the industrial districts could play a key role in energising London whether through direct intervention or leading by example. And the power of ideas were equally important to the LDA who believed that to rouse the “venerable democracy of London” the issue of universal suffrage was not enough. “It might only supplant one faction by another. Let the measures to follow upon Universal Suffrage be delineated”.

In the demand for a more radical course there was a need for a “plan of action to be laid before the people”. What kind of plan was determined by the LDA’s view that “there are two parties in the Chartist ranks, and what is more they have different objects in view.... The Peoples Charter, Peace, Law, Order etc or the People Charter Peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must”. LDA member JC Coombe warned that it was for the Metropolitan Charter Association to “choose which — blend them it cannot”.

So the LDAstill faced a middle-class challenge in London radicalism, and this conflict surfaced in May 1839, when a rolling programme of mass meetings called by the LDA took place.

On 6 May LDA man William Drake, who had been elected to represent Tower Hamlets in the Chartist Convention, attempted to take his seat in the Convention; he was refused admittance. This cut short the efforts of the LDA to influence the Convention’s affairs through further elections. Days before the London Democrat had been encouraging its readers to “tell those who have assumed the leadership, that you are ready… you are determined to wait no longer, not even should the Convention advise you to do so.” After a year of agitation for the Peoples’ Charter the time was speedily approaching for the Convention to face its destiny. JC Coombe asked: “Has it not been generally understood that if Parliament rejected your demands this time, which you were to be prepared to enforce them? I say it has been so understood... What else has been the meaning of ‘peaceably’ if we can, ‘forcibly if we must?’ It has no other meaning..”

question on which freedom depends

As the LDA plunged into a week of rallies and demonstrations Harney asked “What should the people do, in the event of the House of Commons rejecting the Charter?”. A number of options stood before the movement, many of which were not new and indeed pre-dated Chartism:

“Various plans have been suggested such as: ‘Petitioning again!’; ‘Meeting and Remonstrating with Parliament’; ‘Abstaining from the use of Excisable Articles’; ‘A National Holiday’”. This last idea was the general strike. Far from Harney’s youth being a hindrance he ably stripped away one by one the old options under consideration, and espoused the necessity of revolution as the only viable course to obtain the Charter.

Harney repudiated all consideration of a second petition being submitted to Parliament: “Are the wiseacres who recommend this really serious in what they say… The people of England have, in the sight of Heaven and the universe, unanimously and solemnly swore upon their swords to petition no more!” Meeting with Parliament and holding “simultaneous meetings” in order to merely remonstrate, said Harney, “be as absurd as ‘petitioning again’. The tyrants would as much bid defiance to our empty threats, as they at present scorn our ‘humble petitions’.”

As for “consumer” boycotting as a weapon, he said: “It is enough you say, upon the proposition of ‘abstaining from excisable articles’ that the people of England have already laughed to scorn the attempt to humbug and deceive them in this line. It forms no part of the philosophy of Englishmen, because they may happen to be oppressed and deprived by cannibal institutions of nearly the whole of the necessaries of life, to give up what few they have hitherto been able to retain”

Harney based his reasoning on the experience of a section of the proletariat among whom the LDA had sizeable support: the impoverished silk handloom weavers of Spitalfields. He noted that there were “some thousands living, as the handloom weavers are, upon potatoes and oatmeal”. The very idea of such impoverished masses entering into a boycott campaign was folly. “The short and the long of the matter, is that Englishmen are miserable enough, and they know that to make themselves more wretched is not the way to be freed from their misery”. On the rejection of the petition there was left only one feasible alternative and Harney spoke clearly of its meaning.

harney and the general strike

Harney believed that the “only one of the plans here proposed, which appears to me to be at all feasible, is the national holiday”. The idea was not new; it was popularised in 1832 by the old Radical William Benbow in his pamphlet the Grand National Holiday and Congress of the Productive Classes. But in the storm year of 1839 it took on an entirely different context. Its practical implementation was being read and debated throughout the mass movement. Harney has been criticised for thinking in terms of “street fighting and barricades, of sans-culottes rather than industrial workers in factories and mines”. But he was more than familiar with the changed conditions brought about by the industrial revolution and articulated the revolutionary logic of this developed form of class struggle.

It was in this context that the London Democrat addressed the question in May 1839. Similarly Bronterre O’Brien opposed the strike in the Convention as “many would regard it as the beginning of a revolution, and to a certain extent that was his own view”. Harney took the general strike “to mean nothing short of insurrection!” Within the movement there were not only opponents who understood (and therefore opposed) this consequence, but also those who anticipated the anarchist argument that capitalism would simply collapse in the face of the General Strike. Even moral-force Chartists saw it leading to bankruptcies and the government’s collapse. Attwood believed during the “sacred week” (i.e. the strike’s duration) that “solemn payer” and “legal exertion” would win the Charter.

Harney had accepted the necessity of the strike even without all sections of the working class. “I shall pass over all minor objections, and will even grant that which I feel assured would not be the case, viz., that it really would be a ‘national holiday;’ that is, a general strike of the whole of the working classes throughout the country.” It was not romanticism. Harney’s argument was rooted in the conditions of the workers themselves:

“I ask how are the people to subsist during the ‘sacred week’? I presume I shall be answered that the people must provide themselves with a week’s subsistence beforehand. This I assert would be, on the part of the people, an impossibility; as this proposed holiday would be no secret, the upper and middle classes would have previously provided for themselves with a week’s, aye, and more than a weeks subsistence. But not so with the people”.

The country was in a depression, the workers pay was gone within days and the dynamic of hunger would drive the workers to “take by force the food from those who possessed it”. Harney believed if a clash with the state did not come from repression it would arise from necessity; from these impoverished conditions would come “the deadly conflict between those who had and those who had not the food. And what would this be but an insurrection and civil war? I would not object to this plan, but that those who have been its loudest advocates have, at the same time, denounced the arming of the people”.

The consequences were a strikingly accurate prediction of events. “Supposing a conflict, such as I have imagined, to take place in some one petty district, the people unarmed would suffer a murderous defeat.” The effects of the defeat would demoralise and break the movement elsewhere forcing a “return to their task-masters”.

A general strike for the Charter was not like any other strike; the dynamic of such a mass political strike was of a revolutionary challenge. As opposed to the view of the general strike held by the pacifists and advocates of a “self-limiting revolution” as a method of blackmailing reforms from the government, Harney saw the general strike as a strategy for revolution. As such, if disaster was to be avoided, it was vital to prepare beforehand. Would the strike, if it had gone ahead at this point, have been a success? If the ideas articulated in the London Democrat on the general strike had gained hegemony in the Chartist movement, then the chances of success were open for history to judge.

the days of may

May was a crucial month for the Chartist movement, as it was planned to deliver the national petition and all eyes were on the outcome and the fateful decision on the “ulterior measures” (plans if the petition was rejected). As well as a series of mass meetings, the LDA had been agitating among the army. William Rider reported that the London Democrat had a readership in the army, and of a meeting in the Barracks Tavern in South London attended by 70-80 soldiers. Rider concluded that “I believe the soldiers will be our supporters in the coming struggle. I do fear the moral-force men will be traitors to the cause”.

The LDA had planned a series of demonstrations for the week, a notice was issued informing Londoners; of a public meeting to be held on 6 May in Smithfield Market. Important as this week was to the LDA, contrary to the myth perpetuated by some historians, there is no evidence that 6 May was, as David Goodway, puts it “ the beginning of an uprising in London”. The London Democrat had called on the movement as a whole to arm in advance of the presentation of the Peoples Charter, and move to ulterior measures. The LDA called on the movement to adopt their principles and strategy. They did not seek to go it alone separate or against the movement in a sectarian manner. Indeed Harney was adamantly opposed to a premature uprising!

But on 6 May the Government majority in the House of Commons was reduced to a mere five and some ministers resigned. This meant that the Charter could not be considered by Parliament for some time; and made petitioning irrelevant to immediate problems. The Convention issued a statement urging the people not to be provoked into a premature outbreak but to resist attempts to repress their agitation by force if necessary. Nevertheless as reports came of renewed fighting in Llanidloes, on the evening of the 6th the LDA defied the Lord Mayor’s ban on their meeting. When the city police arrived, six thousand people marched from Smithfield Market to Islington Green. Harney chaired the meeting and is reported, by a police observer much relied on by historians, as having informed the crown to “shouts of applause” that “They would shortly be called upon to act… resist oppression and assert their just rights”. On Tuesday 7 May the Prime Minister resigned and the LDA held another demonstration. Coombe and Major Beniowski addressed six thousand people on Clerkenwell Green, where it was declared that: “In London they would plant the Tree of Liberty and Bleed the veins of the Government to succour it”. Two thousand then marched to Shipyard Temple Bar to hear Skeffy, the Convention delegate for Derby.

Whilst the government may have been in crisis, the state was starting to move. A Royal Proclamation was issued on 7 May for the establishment of armed associations of the upper classes. This impacted on the LDA who continued with their agitation calling further meetings on Clarkenwell Green on Wednesday 8 and Friday 10 May. On Friday the Finsbury Police Superintendent considered that the “language if possible was stronger than it has hitherto been” and on searching a pub on the Green he discovered five pikes.

The authorities now moved against the LDA and raided their headquarters at Ship Yard, Temple Bar. The headquarters were draped in the French tricolour flag and amongst the banners was the cap of liberty encircled with the words: “Free we live and free we die”. Thirteen men were arrested including Thomas Ireland and Samuel Waddington. The move against the LDA did not come out of the blue; the police had already been harassing the Association and warning publicans not to let rooms for local meetings.

The Convention adjourned and moved to Birmingham where it arrived on Monday 13 May. Harney addressed a 50,000-strong crowd: “It might be if the government began the reign of terror, the people would end it… It might be that the people should oppose them with the musket and the pike”. The same day in Newcastle — the constituency which had elected Harney to the Convention— Chartists fought a pitched battle with police and special constables. Unknown to Harney a warrant for his arrest was issued on 17 May. The decisive test for the movement had now arrived.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.