|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The class character of Chartism
ED DOVETON’S article on Chartism in the last edition of Socialism Today (No.129, June 2009) was interesting and informative. But it didn’t fully discuss the class nature of the different strands within the movement. The simple division of Chartism between ‘moral force’ and ‘physical force’ obscures the underlying class tensions. The London Working-Man’s Association was a bastion of ‘moral force’ Chartism. Mostly relatively prosperous artisans, they had, in the words of AL Morton, "habits of political discussion, rather than political action" (A Peoples’ History of England). They saw the charter as no more than a political step to a greater say in the running of the country. Many later moved easily into the Liberal Party.
For the working class areas the charter embodied social demands; demands for fair working conditions, for trade union rights, for support for the unemployed. Workers supported ‘physical force’ Chartism, seeing that none of these demands could be achieved without class struggle.
The Welsh working class was a stronghold of ‘physical force’. By the 1830s they had already learned many lessons which still had to be learned in the rest of Britain. They had fought to set up trade unions which had been smashed by mass sackings. They had invented flying pickets and guerrilla industrial action with the ‘Scotch Cattle’. In Merthyr in 1831 they had even staged an uprising which held the town for a week until soldiers were shipped in from outside Wales.
So Chartism based in the mining areas of South East Wales took on a much more politically advanced form. Less is known about it because most of the debates took place in the Welsh language, less amenable to police spies. However like most young movements, its leadership was unusual. The main leaders included John Frost, a tailor and ex-mayor of Newport; Zephaniah Williams, Blaina pub landlord and ex-organiser of ‘claim jumpers’; and Dr William Price, a hippie 150 years before his time – a strong supporter of conservation, vegetarian, and an opponent of marriage. There were shadowy characters such as Jack the Fifer, an old soldier who claimed to have fought for the Texas republic at the Alamo (www.socialistpartywales.org.uk/rev1.html).
There were many strands to their debates, but one was certainly the idea of establishing a ‘Silurian republic’ to take over the major towns and river crossings, to block off the military and give the signal for a general revolt. On 3 November 1839, Chartists from South East Wales organised an armed march on Newport to free the gaoled Chartist speaker Harry Vincent. Disorganisation, atrocious weather, and zero support from England meant the attempt was defeated by the military stationed in Newport. Frost and Williams were charged with treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Despite a clamour for their execution, the sentence was commuted to transportation for life. Price fled to France and the other leaders faded away. As Gwyn A Williams put it "The respectable press drenched working people in the spittle of a truly ferocious class hatred and contempt" (When Was Wales).
The 1840s saw an explosion in demand for iron rails from South Wales and the flame of revolt was, for the time being, extinguished by a period of relative prosperity for workers.
For socialists, the analysis of a historical movement or event must take a major consideration of the cross currents between classes. Mass movements without proletarian leadership are almost commonplace today in the ex-Stalinist states and in Asia. We must learn the lessons from our own history of the almost inevitable failure of such movements due to the fact that only a conscious proletarian leadership can lead a mass uprising to a genuine social revolution.