Chartism was the world’s first major working class movement. It ran from 1837 to 1860.
In 1926 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote of the Chartists:
“All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat—the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection—were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found out their principled answer.”
Trotsky also noted that when it came to tactics and strategies Chartism tried them all, from petitions to armed insurrection.
There is much to learn from a study of Chartism. In a broad sense the Chartists faced the same market capitalist system that we do today.
Chartism started in 1837 with the six points of the Peoples Charter formulated by the London Working Men’s Association.
Women played an active role in Chartism. But a tactical decision was made to campaign for male suffrage first in a situation where only a tiny minority—mostly the very well off—had a vote at all.
The six points raised basic demands around parliamentary democracy, such as a call for a secret ballot and payment of MPs.
All the six demands of the Charter were eventually won—none during the lifetime of the movement—except one that remains outstanding today.
This was a call for annually elected parliaments. This underlines that what the Chartists had in mind was not exactly the House of Commons as we know it now.
The Charter united a series of movements, from those calling for improvements in working conditions in factories in the north of Britain to those campaigning for press freedom in the south, around a set of basic demands.
The movement was led by Feargus O’Connor, an Irish landowner and former MP. Its voice was one of the world’s great working class papers, the Northern Star.
The Northern Star was based in Leeds, the working class powerhouse of Chartism.
For much of its existence it was edited by George Julian Harney, the man who went on to be the first to publish the Communist Manifesto in English in 1850.
It was a mass circulation paper. At a time when literacy levels were low it was read out at meetings of Chartists in workplaces or pubs. Such was the demand that the early post office had to hire extra wagons to truck it around the country.
The Chartist movement developed very quickly. It called early on for a grand national holiday—a general strike—to win the demands of the Charter.
In 1839 there was an attempt at armed insurrection, starting in Newport, South Wales, led by miners. The uprising failed.
The miners were hampered by appalling weather and outnumbered by the army. But it was not the disaster that historians—who until quite recently have ridiculed the Chartists—suggested.
Research has shown that the people behind Newport were activists who had already participated in quite successful armed revolts elsewhere in the world.
This is testimony to the dynamic nature of capitalism and the labour market in the South Wales coalfield.
The Chartists had a rather more successful general strike in 1842—the biggest to take place in the 19th century. Strikers marched from factory to factory pulling the plugs from boilers and stopping production.
The events of 1839 and 1842 brought state repression. The army was often used and leading activists were jailed.
By 1848 Chartism had recovered and the Chartists played a significant role in that year of revolutions across Europe.
The meeting on Kennington Common on Monday 10 April 1848 to present a monster petition calling for the vote to parliament was the beginning of a summer of revolt. And the Chartists came close to winning change.
The Times wrote of the Chartists in Bradford in the summer of 1848 that “if fighting with pluck and courage could make a revolution then the Chartists ought to have succeeded”.
But with the European revolt fading and leading Chartists such as Ernest Jones in jail by August 1848 the movement was defeated. But that was not the end.
Chartism now turned to the left and replaced its traditional green colours with the red flag of socialism.