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Socialism Today 131 - September 2009

Class, leadership and the Chartist movement

The June edition of Socialism Today (No.129) included an article by Ed Doveton, Class struggle and the early Chartist movement, concentrating in particular on Chartism as an embryonic movement towards the creation of a mass political party of the working class. Following a letter in the subsequent edition on the class character of Chartism, ED DOVETON and STEVE WOOTTON continue the discussion.

THE LETTER from Geoff Jones (Socialism Today No.130, July-August 2009), offering to extend my analysis of Chartism, seemed promising in its first lines. One 5,000 word article is not enough to deal with all the historical and analytical issues we can learn from Chartism; further discussion can certainly deepen our understanding.

Geoff raises the character of the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA), suggesting that there are layers or sections within the working class. He says it is important to recognise "underlying class tensions", and that it is the "relatively prosperous artisan(s)" composition of the LWMA which is in this respect, of critical note.

We often use the term ‘the working class’ but in the concrete reality of society there actually exists the working classes. That is, different layers and sections within the working class, influenced in different ways by the pressures of living within capitalism. The relative position of sectional working class groups is one of several interacting influences that contributes towards class-consciousness and the combativity of the working class as a whole. Trotsky examines this issue in some detail in his article The Class, the Party and the Leadership. "A people is comprised of hostile classes", he wrote, "and the classes themselves are comprised of different and in part antagonistic layers which fall under different leadership; furthermore every people falls under the influence of other peoples who are likewise comprised of classes".

My article only makes reference to the reformist character of the LWMA, and within the word length, did not develop the potential reasons for this development. However, Geoff’s letter does not develop this argument to a clear conclusion. He suggests that "the working class" had different demands from the members of the LWMA. Yet members of the LWMA were also members of the working class, even though they were largely reformist. Having different policies does not propel them into the ranks of another social class; rather, it is their policies that can be seen as being in the interests of the capitalists. The two are not the same thing.

Geoff then moves on to what is labelled "the Welsh working class". However, the class is presented as a unified whole (not in terms of layered sections within the working class nor any differences between the North, Border Counties, and South Wales), and there is also no further discussion on the occupational structure and the work process within Wales. Rather, it is simply stated that they were strongly militant, derived from their experience of struggle over the previous decade.

But if we are discussing the reformism of the LWMA based upon their occupational position within the workforce, the "relatively prosperous artisan(s)", then it is necessary to compare the same criteria when examining the contrasting militancy of the Welsh working class. What was different about the occupational structure? What similarities or differences were there in the work process in the industries in Wales?

Instead, Geoff switches to different criteria that can influence class-consciousness: the traditions of the working class and its experience of struggle. But this criteria is not the same as an evaluation of the relative occupational position of sections of the working class (the artisans), and indeed, the work process. To directly contrast one to the other is like comparing apples with oranges.

Moreover, this ‘experience of struggle’ criteria is inaccurately presented as a unique Welsh experience within the British working class. Geoff says that "by the 1830s they [the Welsh working class] had already learned many lessons which still had to be learned in the rest of Britain". Yet this is patently not the case. Whatever experience of struggle had developed within Wales, there was no absence of experience within areas of England, and to a lesser extent Scotland.

In 1830 there was a widespread movement of rural workers, across the south and east of England, known as the Swing Riots. Two decades earlier, there had been the extensive Luddite movement of cloth workers concentrated in the West Riding of Yorkshire. In 1818 there was a prolonged strike of cotton spinners in Manchester, which became a localised general strike involving more than 20,000 workers. In 1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed, involving perhaps half a million workers. Across England, within the different industrial localities, local historical research has thrown up evidence of the formation of trade unions and local action committees of militant workers. There was not an absence of experience of struggle within England, but a deep well upon which the workers could draw. This is precisely reflected in the initial reluctance of the working class to become involved with the Charter, and then the militant preparations for armed struggle in local areas during 1839.

The method of presenting the centrality of militancy in Wales leads onto a more substantial error in evaluating the lack of success of Chartism in the 1838 to 1840 period. The implication is that Chartism failed due to the lack of militancy within England, compared to the brave and determined uprising within militant Wales. When referring to the Newport uprising, Geoff Jones suggests as much: "Disorganisation, atrocious weather, and zero support from England meant the attempt was defeated by the military stationed in Newport".

But this is an erroneous position, which arises when only one factor is considered as determining the outcome of struggle – the militancy of the working class. It ignores the role of the national leadership in the failure of Chartism and appears to explain the weakness of Chartism as stemming from the backwardness of the working class in England, focusing on the Newport uprising in isolation and failing to consider the broader political context of the national Chartist movement.

In reality there is a more complex picture. Within Chartism there were a number of dominant militant and a number of dominant moderate areas, and within all areas a mix of militant and moderate layers of the working class. Within this picture, successful struggle is the outcome of the interaction of a number of different processes.

But how are class-conscious attitudes determined and developed? There are a number of criteria which, within the dynamics of the struggle, dialectically interact upon one another. One of these is indeed the occupational position of different sections of the working class. In simplistic terms, this relates to workers with specific work conditions, which may mean they are more conservative and are more likely to be drawn to the ideology of capitalism. They may be well-paid workers in secure jobs (we might identify these today as senior managers) who, while technically working class, identify their interests with the bosses. During periods of the 19th century, particularly during the middle decades, sections of skilled workers formed such a conservative layer – these are the ‘artisans’ referred to above. However, we should not over-generalise that all skilled workers are conservative. It was skilled cloth dressers who led the Luddite movement in the first decades of the 19th century; and the skilled hewers of coal and engineers who shifted from liberalism to militant socialism in the first decade of the 20th century. Mere occupational position is insufficient in explaining militancy, or the lack of it.

A second factor is the traditions and experience of struggle. During the course of the class struggle, attitudes, tactics and methods are learnt; and these stay with the working class to be used in future struggles. Victories or defeats can alter and amend this consciousness of experience.

This brings us to a third factor, the leadership of the working class. As Trotsky says in his article The Class, the Party and the Leadership: "In reality leadership is not at all a mere ‘reflection’ of a class or the product of its own free creativeness. A leadership is shaped in the process of clashes between the different classes or the friction between the different layers within a given class". In my article I sought to explain how the national Chartist leadership of 1838-1840 arose and how this leadership contrasted with the militancy of the Chartists in the local areas. The national Chartist movement was defeated in this early period because the leadership, drawn from more moderate elements, muted and then beheaded a national united struggle for change. This precisely left the local areas stranded, and resulted in a range of isolated outbursts and struggles across the country, of which the Newport uprising was the most significant.

But Geoff’s letter does not seem to view the Newport uprising in this way. Rather, we are presented with militancy as the determining factor. In reality, while the class struggle, of necessity, requires the militancy of the working class, who draw upon their traditions of struggle, this is not the only factor that influences the outcome of events. Instead there is a dialectical interpenetration of various factors. These include the leadership, the class (which itself is divided into varying militant layers) and the determination, weakness, strength and tactics of the ruling class. An analysis that only sees the militancy of the class directly leading to a militant leadership, but without taking into consideration the dynamic unfolding of these other interacting factors, is misguided.

Ed Doveton,


Lessons for the struggle for a new party

ED DOVETON’S article on Chartism is one of those examples which show that Socialism Today should possibly serialise more articles. Then maybe it could have discussed the points raised by Geoff in his letter about the need to analyse the class nature of the different strands of Chartism.

Chartism was not a homogenous organisation, and how could it be when the working class and the industrial centres of Britain at that time were still developing? The development of Moral Force Chartism (called the New Move) rose out of the defeats of 1839 and the uneven development of manufacturing centres in Britain at the time.

So, to get a better outlook when we discuss Chartism, we have to examine the rise of the reform movement leading up to and beyond the Peterloo massacre of 1819, Robert Owen and his advocacy of socialist and cooperative ideas and of course, the demands and ideology that the manufacturing wing of the bourgeois were campaigning for through their organisations such as the Birmingham Political Union. It was these Political Unions that, although having the support of many small artisans and employers, went out of their way not to let them join. Wanting to appeal only to the ‘respectable classes’ the Political Unions ultimately led to the working classes being consciously betrayed in the run up to the granting of the 1832 Reform Act. This was the act that achieved, for the first time, the vote for the developing industrial middle class (males). It was a lesson that politically conscious workers were not to forget.

We also need to examine the role played by female workers who, in the working class areas, supported Chartism through the Female Radical Association or the Female Chartists Associations. These at their height involved hundreds of working class women alongside sincere middle class female activists. But they also started to challenge male dominance in the National Charter Association and the local bodies as well. (See Jutta Schwartzkopf’s book, Women in the Chartist Movement, MacMillan, ISBN 0-333-53915-X)

There were also the ideological battles that saw Chartists fighting a determined campaign to prevent the unions going over to the Liberal Party in cities like Bristol. It is not the case, as Geoff states, that workers went over easily to the Liberal Party. There was for example in Bristol a heated battle around 1842 to prevent trade unions giving political support to the Liberals when that party in office locally wanted to municipalise the city’s docks. It was also around this time that Chartists were debating with Robert Owen about socialism after the demise of Owen’s Grand National Consolidated Trade Union.

It was these young workers and campaigners who in their later years developed socialist ideas from mass campaigns and being involved in the cooperative movement and trade unions. For some it would not be a straight line. But some went on to influence the cadres of the Social Democratic Federation and the Independent Labour Party which in turn led to the creation of the Labour Party. A Labour Party that incidentally grew under a restricted franchise still skewed in the ruling classes’ favour and an electoral system that was first-past-the-post. From the start, these activists saw that any new workers’ party had to be rooted in working class campaigns and not purely reliant on the electoral plane.

As the demand for a new workers’ party gathers pace in Britain, the ideas raised in the past to prevent such a party growing will also be seen again. There will be those who will seek to limit it to just standing in elections, those who will want a clean break and those who will want to work with any rump left in or around New Labour’s remains. Socialism Today should carry a series of articles to analyse the lessons from the past, draw conclusions and prepare for the growth of a new workers’ party in the future.

Steve Wootton,



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