Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The Chartists

Chartists at Kennington Common
  “War to the palaces, peace to the cottages” - a rallying call of the Chartists

The Peoples Charter printed and published on May 8, 1838. On the 21st of May a mass meeting on Glasgow Green hears of the People's Charter for the first time and later presented at a demonstration in Birmingham in August.

Out of the discontent of the Industrial Revolution arose two great movements, the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union and the Chartist Movement. Owen’s trade union and the Chartist movement were the embryo of the organisation of the British class-struggle. There were several causes which led to the development of workers’ national organisations; experience had proved the weakness and isolation of the craft and district trade unions; these lessons had been reinforced by defeat in many sectional struggles; there was also the growing tendency of the employers to combine; all these factors contributed to build up a recognition of the importance of national trade unions and national strikes.

The GNCTU, formed by Owen in 1834, a 19th century version of the One Big Union concept, rapidly gained strength and had a membership of over half-a-million. Its life was short. Whilst Owen dreamed of the gradualism of the co-operative millennium, some such as the Executive members, Smith and Morrison, declared the Union to represent the new form of government and mobilised the workers for action. The reply of the employers was crushing. Lock-outs were resorted to in order to starve the workers into abandoning the Union. The Government announced a new Bill to make such a union illegal and struck relentlessly at the GNCTU by court conviction and barbarous sentences. Defeat followed defeat and funds began to run out. Temporarily, the attempt to unite the workers on the industrial field was defeated. The workers fell back into their old state – fighting on separate fronts for different objectives.

The need for the whole working class to once again unite for the struggle came to the fore and the Chartists Movement was formed. It was an organisation of no compromise, their slogan was “The Charter and nothing but the Charter.” It was the first class party of the workers which thrust the issue of class power to the front and shook the rising capitalist system to its foundations. The temper of the workers was clearly in favour of revolution. In Birmingham, for instance, in July, 1839, the workers carried on street fighting for nearly a week with both police and military, only being disarmed in the end by the “centrists” of Chartism. In Kent, the land workers revolted and, arming, attacked Canterbury in 1838. The Newport rising, two years later, and the fights all over England against both police and military show clearly that the workers were ready for civil war. Harney pointed out clearly that the General Strike, then being advocated as a peaceful method of carrying the Charter, would, if carried through, only end in Civil war, and for this preparation was necessary.

Chartism declared a class war.

George Julian Harney wrote:
“As regards the working men swamping all other classes the answer is simple – other classes have no right to exist. To prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working class preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, is the mission of The Red Republican.”

A further example from the writings of Ernest Jones:
"An amalgamation of classes is impossible ... these two portions of the community must be separated distinctly, dividedly and openly, from each other, CLASS AGAINST CLASS. All other mode of procedure is mere moonshine."

The General Strike - Folded Arms

It was in the eighteen-thirties that this idea of the General Strike emerged. It did so partly through the activities of William Benbow’s conception of a general stoppage of work put forward in his pamphlet The Grand National Holiday. He Aargued that the workers had “only to say we must be free” and “they would be so two days afterwards.” Benbow held that violence was not necessary. He wanted the workers simply to dress themselves in their Sunday clothes and take a month’s holiday. He set about urging the workers to set up local committees to organise the holiday and see that violence was avoided. The idea became popular among the workers; and the rise of the various national unions of the workers naturally increased the support for the “National Holiday.” It was carried a step further forward by the radicals of the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union in its declaration that the delegate conference of trades was a better form of government than parliament, and that it represented the government of the workers as against the government of the employers.

After the rejection of the Charter, The Chartist Convention of 1839 discussed alternatives and one of these was the “National Holiday” now called by the Chartists the “sacred week” or sometimes “the sacred month.” Benbow emerged again and his pamphlet sold even more widely than before. Although advocated and regarded it as a peaceful weapon Julian Harney – Secretary of the London Democratic Association, and later the close friend of Marx and Engels – declared that, to be successful the general strike meant “nothing less than civil war.”

In the London Democrat, for May 4, 1839, Harney showed how impossible it was for the workers, on their low wages, to provide themselves with food to carry them through the strike, and described how they would be faced with starvation after the first few days, and so be driven to take food from the rich. This would bring them into conflict with the military and, he asked, “what would this be but insurrection and civil war?” He continued:
“I should 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. Suppose such a conflict, such as I have imagined, to take place in some petty district, the people, being unarmed, would suffer a murderous defeat. The news of the slaughter of the people in this one district would fly like wildfire throughout the country; the effect would be that the rest of the people (dispirited with hunger and but too conscious that they too were unarmed) would be compelled to return to their taskmasters soliciting again to be enslaved ..."

What then should the people do? The fact was that there is but one mode of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection. Haerney understood that the General Strike means preparing to meet the troops, the police and the armed forces of the ruling class – which is precisely what the supporters of the “National Holiday” did not intend to do.

In the year 1842 the great “Plug Plot” took place.The strike, which originated in Ashton and Hyde against a reduction in wages, spread rapidly to other parts of Lancashire, to Yorkshire, Staffordshire, the Potteries, and to parts of Wales and Scotland. Hungry, shouting and grim bands of strikers invaded the various towns, carrying such banners as “They that perish by the sword are better than they that perish by hunger.” Harney’s predictions proved accurate.

For days Manchester and other towns were in a state of siege; shops were shut, factories invaded, and the workers brought out – willingly or unwillingly – to join in the strike. Trains were stopped and frequent conflicts took place between the strikers and the Government forces. In Preston and Blackburn the troops, who were poured into the strike areas by the Government, fired upon the crowds, killing six workers.

The delegate conference of the strikers decided to turn the strike into one for the Charter; all work was to cease until the “Charter became the law of the land.” The winning of the Charter was based upon the belief that the General Strike would compel the ruling class to abdicate from rulership. The Chartist Association issued a manifesto:
“Englishmen! The blood of your brethren reddens the streets of Preston and Blackburn and the murderers thirst for more. Be firm, be courageous, be men. Peace, law and order have prevailed on our side; let them be revered until your brethren in Scotland, Wales and Ireland are informed of your resolution and when a universal holiday prevails, which will be the case in eight days, then of what use will bayonets be against public opinion?"

The Government, however, far from surrendering its power, turned all its attention to repressive measures; whilst the factory owners formed themselves into volunteer forces of “specials.” The strike, however, did not develop further towards insurrection than a number of isolated conflicts between the strikers and the police and troops. In September the workers resumed without having carried the Charter into law and without having prevented the wage reductions. Once again Harney’s analysis was vindicated, the ruling class of the time would not yield to peaceful means.

The Chartist “folded arms” theory periodically reappears as a theory for the labour/socialist movement. Syndicalists and Leftists are still under the illusion that the General Strike can achieve the emancipation of the workers. They still promote the General Strike as a weapon in the struggle of the working class. We need not resort to the history of the 19th century for evidence of its failure. The 1926 General Strike provides ample proof that in a fight against the whole capitalist class, the workers industrial muscle is inadequate, and it is political power that will prevail.

However, as one observer after the collapse of Chartism commented “One might imagine that all is peaceful, that all is motionless; but it is when all is calm that the seed comes up, that republicans and socialists advance their ideas in people’s minds.”

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