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A Hundred Years Since the Charter

May, 1838—May, 1938: one hundred years pregnant with profound changes in social and political development. May, 1838, saw working-class discontent and agitation for political enfranchisement reach organised expression in the production of the “Charter" from which the Chartist movement took its name. The Charter was written by William Lovett, an "uneducated" working man who was a leading figure in the London Working Men’s Association, an organisation formed to pursue agitation for Universal Suffrage. The basic demands of the Charter were: (1) Annual Parliaments, (2) Universal Suffrage, (3) Payment of Members, (4) Abolition of Property Qualification, (5) Equal Electoral Districts.

It would be simple enough to declaim on the mistakes of the Chartists, but they were the mistakes resulting from working-class immaturity. In view of the background of the movement the marvel is that it did not make more mistakes, and provide more numerous examples of unintelligent direction. The conditions out of which the Chartist movement grew are familiar to students of history. In the early nineteenth century the industrial revolution, which transformed England from an agricultural to a largely industrial country, had hardly completed itself. The transformation created a property-less working class, which formed the majority of the population. There was intense suffering and misery. Towns had sprung up over-night. Workers were huddled in barrack-like hovels called houses, with little regard for sanitation, light or air. Whole families were brutally exploited by the new propertied class, the factory owners. Hours of labour were from sixteen to twenty a day. Children of an average age of eight years, and some even as low as four or five years, were employed in degrading and revolting conditions in the mines and factories. Many who tried to run away were brought back and chains were riveted on them.

So fiendish and brutal in their lust for profit were the new factory-owning class, and so blind to the social results of their greed, that many of the more farsighted reformers of the older ruling class, the aristocracy, feared a dangerous decline of the working-class population. England seethed in a bitter class-struggle which was crystallised around the struggle for the Charter. Until 1832, the year when the Reform Act was passed, the workers had supported the new industrial capitalist class in its struggle to gain Parliamentary enfranchisement. The Reform Act achieved this, but left the workers without any say in the government of the country. Deserted and left in the air for a few years, the many separate working-class organisations throughout the country which had worked for the franchise soon found themselves welded together in support of Lovett’s Charter. The movement followed a turbulent course for about ten years and then gradually passed out.

The Charter gained considerable support from workers throughout the country. The first petition for the Charter was presented to Parliament in 1839 and was rejected by an overwhelming majority. This failure resulted in increasing support for the “physical force" section of the Chartist movement, as opposed to the “moral force” section. Attempts were made at insurrection. One effort to release a Chartist leader from prison culminated in a riot in which soldiers, firing only one round of ammunition, killed ten and wounded forty Chartists. Several leaders were executed and others transported for life.

After the failure of the first petition the movement lagged and suffered considerably from the internal disputes between its “physical" and “moral" force sections. Subsequently, the “moral force" section broke away and formed the National Charter Association, which aimed at achieving political reform through association with the Liberals. Thenceforth the “physical force" section was in the ascendant and dominant. A second petition was presented to Parliament in 1842 and was again rejected. This was followed by an abortive attempt at a general strike. In 1848, stimulated by the upheaval in France, Chartism again revived, and a third petition was presented on April 10th, this time accompanied by a march on the House of Commons by thousands of Chartists. O’Connor, leader of the “physical force" Chartists, suffered the humiliation of having to order his followers to disperse on the “advice of the police." When the petition was examined it was found that instead of having the six million signatures claimed for it there were only two million, and a great proportion of those were patent forgeries. It was the death blow for Chartism. But though it died it unquestionably left its mark on working-class politics and exerted a tremendous influence on the reform movement of the time, besides influencing the literary world, as is shown by some of the outstanding writers of those days. Though the movement was left bleeding and exhausted, it doubtless assisted the introduction of such reforms as the Child Labour Acts (1842), The Ten-Hour Day (1847) and the abolition of the stamp duty on newspapers in 1836.

The aims for which the Chartists struggled have now been achieved, with the exception of Annual Parliaments; though Universal Suffrage and the Payment of Members are relatively modern innovations, the one being introduced in 1918 and the other in 1911. The lapse of the years between the struggle for the Charter and the achievement of its objects tends to obscure the important part in working-class history played by the Chartists. The desperate nature of their struggle brought the franchise to the workers more quickly than if that struggle had not taken place. The modern working class has inherited the benefits and the accumulated experience of those struggles. The Chartists fought for democratic enfranchisement, the modern working class takes it for granted and must inevitably fight for more. Bitter experience taught the Chartists the importance of Parliament. Some saw in the acquiring of the franchise an end to all their troubles, a few saw deeper, that their poverty was due to capitalist ownership, and glimpsed the Socialist solution. Nevertheless, the democratic struggle which they fought was part of the historic struggle for Socialism, a struggle that had to be made. The ruling class feared them and their aims. It took many decades for the rulers to learn that enfranchisement for the workers did not of necessity threaten the rights of private property. The struggles for the aims of Chartists were carried on in other forms by men who came after, and partial concessions were made to the workers in 1867 and 1884, before complete enfranchisement was granted to all males over 21 in 1918 and to females in 1930. The nineteenth century capitalist took the measure of the Chartists and their successors, bitterly opposing their aims and granting concessions only when to do so diverted them, from adopting more menacing demands; the modern capitalist class has made concessions in the happy assurance of apparent safety. But are they so safe?

The Parliamentary machine which they control has reached coercive and administrative perfection. It has reached it through centuries of struggle for dominance between the propertied sections. But to-day there is only one dominant propertied class and only one class, the working class, who can challenge its dominance. At the moment there may appear to be nothing serious to disturb the equanimity of the capitalists. But that means little. The modern working class inherits the lessons of history, half-formed ideas of. the goal towards which historic evolution is relentlessly marching shape themselves in the minds of millions of workers. The seeds of generations of propaganda have been sown, and who knows when and how events which neither capitalists nor workers can control will develop rapidly those half-formed ideas into Socialist convictions and bring to maturity the seeds sown in past generations ? Political catastrophes, like those in Nature, appear to occur suddenly, but they are not sudden to those who understand that they are the culmination of the innumerable past factors in historical development. The Chartists played their part, the modern workers play theirs. Between the two much ground has been cleared, preparing the way for the days when events will show clearly to intelligent workers that Socialism is the only logical outcome of the class struggle and the only solution for their poverty and insecurity.

Harry Waite