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The Chartists turn left after the defeats of 1848

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Keith Flett continues our series on the Chartists by exploring the debates in the movement in the 1850s
Issue 2030
The Chartists turn left after the defeats of 1848
‘Not so very unreasonable, eh?’ A contemporary illustration

The Year 1848 represented a serious defeat for the Chartists. The main left wing Chartist grouping, the Fraternal Democrats, had to cease public operations for a period. One of the leaders of the left, Ernest Jones, was jailed, along with many other activists.

Despite the verdict of numerous history books this was far from the end of Chartism. There was a regroupment of organisation and ideas.

The leader of this was George Julian Harney, the editor of the Northern Star newspaper. His emphasis was on increasing the internationalism of the Chartists and of moving its domestic agenda way beyond the six points that demanded the vote and more democracy.

This did not go without opposition, particularly from Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor who opposed both developments on the grounds that they would cause disunity in the ranks of Chartism.

Harney fought with O’Connor. He resigned as editor of the Northern Star and started a monthly journal, the Democratic Review.

It was in its pages that a new left wing programme for Chartism was worked through. Frederick Engels made frequent contributions to it. Key passages from Karl Marx’s works also appeared.

The influence of Marx and Engels on the ideas of the Chartists at this stage was far greater than may have been supposed.

Chartism began to renew itself in 1849 by explaining the defeats of the previous year and suggesting a way forward.

The context was also more hopeful. Hungary’s struggle for national liberation from Austria provoked widespread solidarity in Britain and helped to rally Chartist forces.

When an Austrian military figure Haynau visited London, he was chased by brewery workers at the Barclay and Perkins brewery on the South Bank of London and forced to flee the country.

By 1850 Harney was able to launch a weekly paper, the Red Republican, around a regrouped Fraternal Democrats with around 20 branches across the country.

They remained part of the Chartist Party, the National Charter Association (NCA), and argued for a left wing programme, The Charter and Something More. By 1851, Harney also had the support of Ernest Jones, now released from prison.

The Charter and Something More called for the nationalisation of the land and key utilities like the railways, together with left wing measures for the press, the army and education.

Its ideas were argued for by Harney and Jones at a series of meetings. Despite opposition from O’Connor, it became official Chartist policy.

Advanced sections of the working class still supported Chartism.The issue was how to organise this support, since membership of the NCA remained small.

Harney wanted to organise a new party based around the trade unions and the cooperatives, while Jones was for rebuilding the NCA.

In reality neither happened. Harney, frustrated and beset by personal problems, dropped out of Chartist activity – although not from radical politics.

Jones continued to try to organise Chartism, and by 1858 was trying to launch a new party.

Marx and Engels began to argue that revolutionary change was not on the immediate agenda, and that a longer term approach was required.

This found little immediate echo among leading Chartists, who viewed the defeats of 1848 as a temporary setback.

This meant that while Chartists often participated in the protests of the 1850s against the Crimean War and in support of the huge building workers’ strike in the late 1850s, they failed to harness the militancy shown.

The left wing tide which had been reflected in the adoption of the Charter and Something More after 1848 ebbed.

Chartism very much reverted by the late 1850s to a focus on the political democracy of the six points.

There was nothing inevitable about this. It was a result of specific debates within Chartism and political decisions taken, which were not always the right ones.

This process took time as the impact of the defeats of 1848 worked their way through. Within that process new movements and ideas developed.

Most of the activists who joined with Marx in the First International in the 1860s learnt their ideas and politics from the Chartists after 1848.

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