George Julian Harney (1817-1897) was a radical Chartist leader who became a pioneer of English revolutionary socialism.
Born in Deptford, Harney decided against following his father’s maritime career and became a shop-boy for Henry Hetherington, editor of the Poor Man’s Guardian. Hetherington, whose paper advocated the “cause of the rabble… the poor, the suffering, the industrious, the productive classes,” refused to pay the 4d. stamp duty on each paper sold. In the early 1830s, twenty-five of his forty paper sellers went to prison for selling the unstamped publication.
One of those arrested was Harney, and his imprisonment had a radicalising impact. Harney was a member of the London Working Men’s Association but became impatient at its failure to achieve universal suffrage. He became influenced by the more militant ideas of Fergus O’Connor who advocated physical force, to the horror of more moderate Chartists such as Hetherington and William Lovett.
On 28 January 1839 Harney argued that: ”You will get nothing from your tyrants but what you can take, and you can take nothing unless you are properly prepared to do so. In the words of a good man, then, I say ‘Arm for peace, arm for liberty, arm for justice, arm for the rights of all, and the tyrants will no longer laugh at your petitions’. Remember that.”
However, against the advocates of physical force, such as O’Connor — the son of a member of Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, whose outlook was shaped by the Irish revolutionary traditions — Harney and William Bronterre O’Brien combined a fascination with the French revolutionary legacy of Gracchus Babeuf with an increasing appreciation of the growing English workers’ movement.
Along with O’Connor, Harney became a founder of the openly republican East London Democratic Association and became convinced of William Benbow’s argument that a Grand National Holiday, or general strike, was the means to change the political system. At the Chartist Convention in the summer of 1839, Harney and Benbow convinced the delegates of this and toured the country to attempt to persuade workers to join in the strike.
Harney was arrested and charged with sedition, and the strike was called off. He moved to Scotland and married Mary Cameron, but before long was back in England as the Chartist organiser in Sheffield.
During the strikes of 1842, Harney was one of the fifty-eight Chartists arrested and tried at Lancaster in March 1843. After his conviction was overturned on appeal, Harney became a journalist at O’Connor’s Northern Star and within two years became the editor. He became increasingly interested in the international struggle for universal suffrage and founded the Society of Fraternal Democrats in 1845, developing closer links with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
In 1848 Harney explained the ideals behind the Society: “I appeal to the oppressed classes in every country to unite for the common cause... the cause of labour, of labour enslaved and exploited.
“Do not the workers of all nations have the same reasons for complaint and the same causes of distress? Have they not, therefore, the same just cause?”
Harney persuaded Marx and Engels to write for the Northern Star, and when the revolutions broke out across Europe in 1848, he travelled to Paris to meet members of the revolutionary Provisional Government.
By now a socialist, Harney’s political beliefs strained his relationship with O’Connor, who persuaded him to stand down as editor of the newspaper. He founded his own paper, the Red Republican, with the help of Ernest Jones, and attempted to educate his working-class readership about socialist ideas. It was in this paper that the first English edition of the Communist Manifesto was published in 1850, prompting a London Times leader of September 2, 1851 on “Literature For The Poor” to worry about the “evil teachings” in Chartist newspapers.
In 1851 Harney joined with Marx, Engels and French followers of August Blanqui to found the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. However, the defeat of the 1848 revolutions and the stabilisation of the economy in the 1850s took their toll on Chartism. Harney’s paper was not a commercial success and soon folded. Demoralised, Harney found himself politically isolated after having fallen out with Jones and Marx, and suffered a further blow when his wife died in 1853.
In 1863, Harney moved to America and worked as a clerk. His only contact with politics was writing articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle. When he returned to England in 1881, unlike many old Chartists Harney did not join Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation (SDF), though he did send messages of support to the striking dockers in 1889 and attended the May Day demonstration in 1890.
According to Terry Liddle’s pamphlet Deptford’s Red Republican, “shortly before his death Harney was interviewed for the SDF's Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: ‘I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears’”.