Chartism’s hidden history

Issue: 114

Judy Cox

Keith Flett, Chartism After 1848: the Working Class and the Politics of Radical Education (Merlin Press, 2006), £15.95

During the 1830s and 1840s one of the best organised, most militant and popular working class movements in British history rocked early Victorian society. It focused on the six point Charter, first published in 1838, which included demands for universal male suffrage, secret ballots and annual elections for parliament. The agitation for the Charter involved the production and distribution of newspapers, mass demonstrations, riots, strikes and even the possibility of insurrection. The last great upswing of the movement came in 1848, the year of revolution across Europe.

The Chartists have long been revisited and reinterpreted by historians engaged in contemporary debates about the possibilities and limitations of independent working class action. Comparatively few historians have looked in detail at the period following the defeat of the Chartists in the crucial summer months of 1848. Keith Flett redresses this weakness in his new book. He has not written a narrative history of the final years of the movement. Rather, his book engages with the mass of historiography which has built up on the remnants of Chartism and relates developments in that movement to aspects of Marxist theory to explore the complexities and strengths of working class protest.

Among the key themes of the book are the enduring nature of Chartist ideas, Chartism’s connections with radical education and the potential threat the movement posed to the capitalist system. The common sense among historians has been that 1848 represented the last hurrah for radical Chartism, which went into an immediate decline after the failure of the mass demonstration from Kennington Common to parliament in April. For example, John Belchem has suggested that ‘1848 represents the end of an era in popular radicalism’. Flett, however, uncovers a hidden history of radical Chartism that continued, albeit in different forms, up until 1860. One path which radical ideas were channelled down in the wake of defeat was that of radical education. Flett uses the concept of ‘really useful knowledge’, adopted by left wing historians in the 1970s to develop the links between political and educational radicalism. When the Chartist movement did decline during the 1860s, ‘really useful knowledge’ gave way to ‘merely useful knowledge’, of the practical, self‑help variety.

In 1982 Gareth Steadman Jones wrote a very influential study, Rethinking Chartism, which argued that the Chartists failed because they were stuck in the language and strategies of the 18th century rather than heralding a new era of working class activity and socialism. This study attracted criticism from Marxist historians and Flett makes a couple of very effective sideswipes at Steadman Jones’s analysis in the course of this book. One of the central themes of Flett’s book is that forward‑looking socialist politics, based on the emerging power of the working class, ran deeply through the Chartist organisation up to and well beyond 1848. The experience of defeat in 1848 sparked intense debates in the Chartist movement which could have gone in many directions, rather than its immediate collapse.

This was certainly the case in the summer of 1848. The state managed to avoid confrontation with the Chartists, despite the tens of thousands who had gathered with the intention of taking their petition to parliament. However, the overlooked summer months saw renewed demonstrations, rioting, clashes with police and even attempted insurrection, which came closest to success in Bradford. In June 1848 the Times reported, ‘Bradford and its neighbourhood have been within an ace of falling into the hands of a revolutionary crew.’ New Chartist clubs sprang up throughout the summer as the radical demand for ‘the Charter and something more’—for both political representation and social reform—took hold among Chartists.

The wholesale arrests of Chartist leaders had a huge impact on the confidence and organisation of the movement but failed to crush radical aspirations or win consent for the political system. As John Saville pointed out, ‘The government had overwhelmed the radicals by physical force and they had triumph in ideas.’ This triumph expressed itself in the Chartist programme of 1851. The programme represented one of the most advanced statements of ideas produced by the working class in the 19th century. Saville described it as a ‘blueprint for a socialist state’. The programme asserted that ‘political change would be inefficacious unless accompanied by social change’ and that ‘the Chartist body should stand forward as the protector of the oppressed—each suffering class should see in it the redresser of its several wrongs’. Flett points out that the historians who see the period after 1848 as one of the stabilisation of the capitalist state and a move to the right among workers do not mention the 1851 programme and have failed to properly investigate the extent to which the French Revolution dominated the thought of English radicals.

So rather than being a period of demoralisation, the period after 1848 saw intense and complex debates about future strategies for working class action. One sign of this debate was the size of the audience for Chartist public meetings, which continued to attract big numbers throughout 1848 and into the 1850s. These meetings provided a place where ‘ways of looking at the world and strategies for change could be formulated and debated’ and new organisational structures, capable of meeting changing circumstances, could be developed. Despite the closure of open spaces where mass meetings could be held, through a dual strategy of policing and privatisation, the old methods of organising persisted. Public meetings allowed Chartists to make sense of their experiences and interpret events.

They were also a strategy for educating people in radical ideas which fed into the rise of formally‑organised radical education. This radical and largely secular education was beginning to thrive by the autumn of 1849 under the stimulus of political defeat and the search for new, more gradual, strategies for change. Radical schools, such as William Lovett’s National Hall in Holborn, London, represented a move away from confronting the system and towards a process of ‘warrening’ underneath it, but not simply submitting to the dominant culture. Alongside the formal education provided in schools came an emerging tradition of education through the mechanism of working class culture, around workplaces, pubs, political meetings and reading aloud from newspapers such as the Northern Star.

At the end of the 1850s a shift away from the politics of Chartism to the beginnings of a more reformist, parliamentarian politics began to develop. As the old working class politics fragmented and disintegrated, a new working class politics was born. New leaders emerged from the trade union movement, where different groups of workers began to organise and have an impact. But while working class organisation flourished, independent working class political representation became overshadowed by the Liberal Party.

Some historians have argued that this period saw the simple capitulation of working class leaders to the Liberals. However, this was not a simple, inevitable or uncontested process. Debates about universal suffrage or limited suffrage, alliances with the Liberal Party or independent working class organisation, raged. However, as Flett points out, the mass circulation of Reynolds’s Newspaper showed the size of the audience for ideas to the left of the Liberals, while education in working men’s colleges and Mechanics Institutes was not exclusively about self-improvement. Although there was a shift towards ideas of working class respectability and seeking security within the system, there were also working class confrontations, for example in Sheffield.

Throughout this study, Flett relates key developments in the Chartist movement to other great working class struggles and to Marxist theory. For the most part this works very well, for example, in his discussion of the role of the public meeting and the potential for militant action to erupt from superficially apathetic masses. However, at times the analogies are stretched a little far. For example, he tries to relate Tony Cliff’s theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution to the way in which the impact of the defeat inflicted on the Chartist Movement in 1848 was ‘deflected’ until 1860. This involves a comparison of social processes which are so different it can offer little insight into either. This small criticism aside, Chartism Since 1848 is an excellently researched book that is a valuable addition to the literature on Chartism and should be read by all those interested in this pathbreaking movement that has so much to teach socialists today.