George Julian Harney: Red Republican

‘It is not any amelioration of the conditions of the most miserable that will satisfy us: it is justice to all that we demand. It is not the mere improvement of the social life of our class that we seek, but the abolition of classes and the destruction of those wicked distinctions which have divided the human race into princes and paupers, landlords and labourers, masters and slaves. It is not any patching and cobbling up of the present system we aspire to accomplish, but the annihilation of the system and the substitution, in its stead, of an order of things in which all shall labour and all enjoy, and the happiness of each guarantee the welfare of the entire community’ George Julian Harney, 1850, Red Republican (quoted in ‘Yes Utopia’ by Ron Cook).

George Julian Harney, the son of a seaman, was born in the squalor and misery of Deptford on 17 February, 1817 and died in Richmond, Surrey on 9th December, 1897.

Harney’s political journey began as secretary of the London Democratic Association which attracted thousands of workers. Harney dismissed the idea of appealing to the morality of the ruling class and rebuffed any alliances with the ‘liberals’:

‘You see now through the delusions of your enemies. Nearly nine years of ‘liberal’ government have taught you the blessings of middle class sway, blessings exemplified in ‘bastilles’ and ‘water gruel,’ in ‘separation’ and ‘starvation’; in the cells of silent horror and the chains of transportation, in the universal misery of yourselves and the universal profligacy of your oppressors’ (London Democrat, April 20, 1839), referring to the effects of the New Poor Law Act on the conditions in the workhouses.

As Chartism took root, Harney gravitated towards the more militant wing understanding that the workers’ franchise needed to lead to much more:

‘Unless the People’s Charter is followed by a measure [to] equalise the condition of all, the producing classes will still be oppressed.’

While most Chartists sought peaceful change, Harney was committed to an insurrectionary overthrow of the system and the establishment. In a speech at Derby, 28 January, 1839, Harney declared:

‘We demand Universal Suffrage, because we believe the universal suffrage will bring universal happiness. Time was when every Englishman had a musket in his cottage, and along with it hung a flitch of bacon; now there was no flitch of bacon for there was no musket; let the musket be restored and the flitch of bacon would soon follow. You will get nothing from your tyrants but what you can take, and you can take nothing unless you are properly prepared to do so. In the words of a good man, then, I say ‘Arm for peace, arm for liberty, arm for justice, arm for the rights of all, and the tyrants will no longer laugh at your petitions’. Remember that.’

Harney pointed out that the general strike, the Grand National Holiday as it was called, being advocated as a peaceful method of bringing about the Charter, would, if carried through, only end in an inevitable civil war, and for this preparation was necessary. In the London Democrat, for 4 May, 1839, Harney showed how impossible it was for the workers, on their low wages, to provide themselves with food to carry them through the strike, and described how they would be faced with starvation after the first few days, and so be driven to take food from the rich. This would bring them into conflict with the military and, he asked, ‘What would this be but insurrection and civil war?’

He continued:

‘I should not object to this plan, but that those who have been its loudest advocates have at the same time denounced the arming of the people. Suppose such a conflict, such as I have imagined, to take place in some petty district, the people, being unarmed, would suffer a murderous defeat. The news of the slaughter of the people in this one district would fly like wildfire throughout the country; the effect would be that the rest of the people (dispirited with hunger and but too conscious that they too were unarmed) would be compelled to return to their taskmasters soliciting again to be enslaved…’

Harney’s efforts to swing Chartism behind physical force and immediate preparations to take power failed, nevertheless he reflected the mood of many workers who expressed revolutionary sentiments. In Birmingham, the workers carried on street fighting for nearly a week with both police and military, only being disarmed in the end by the moderate leaders of Chartism. In Kent, farm labourers revolted and, arming themselves, attacked Canterbury. The Newport Rising showed that certain workers were ready for rebellion. In 1842, the ‘Plug Plot’ took place. The strike, which originated in Ashton and Hyde against a reduction in wages, spread to other parts of the country, to Wales and Scotland. Manchester and other towns were in a state of siege; shops were shut, factories invaded, to bring workers out on strike. In Preston and Blackburn soldiers fired upon crowds, killing six. Hungry strikers marched in various towns, carrying such banners as ‘They that perish by the sword are better than they that perish by hunger.’ Harney’s analysis was vindicated. Armed insurrection as proposed by Harney is, now, no longer an option but the Chartist ‘folded arms’ theory still periodically reappears as a means of emancipation. The workers’ industrial muscle in a general strike against the capitalist class is insufficient and it is political power that must prevail.

In 1844, Harney became involved with the Fraternal Democrats, a society of Chartists and European political exiles which issued a manifesto that proclaimed:

‘All men are brethren. We denounce all political and hereditary inequalities and distinctions of castes …. We believe the earth, with all its natural productions, to be the common property of all …. We believe that the present state of society, which permits its idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth and, the production of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards, and even condemns them to social slavery, destitution, and degradation, to be essentially unjust.’

In one address to the Fraternal Democrats Harney declared:

‘Whatever national differences divide Poles, Russians, Prussians, Hungarians, and Italians, these national differences have not prevented the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian despots uniting together to maintain their tyranny; why, then, cannot countries unite for obtainment of their liberty? The cause of the people in all countries is the same – the cause of Labour, enslaved, and plundered… In each country the tyranny of the few and the slavery of the many are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same. In all countries the men who grow the wheat live on potatoes. The men who rear the cattle do not taste flesh-food. The men who cultivate the vine have only the dregs of its noble juice. The men who make clothing are in rags. The men who build the houses live in hovels. The men who create every necessary comfort and luxury are steeped in misery. Working men of all nations, are not your grievances, your wrongs, the same? Is not your good cause, then the same also? We may differ as to the means, or different circumstances may render different means necessary but the great end – the veritable emancipation of the human race – must be the one end and aim of all.’

At the time, Marx and Engels were also involved in the process of setting up an international association and were invited to preparatory meetings which sought to bring various associations together and as a result Marx met George Julian Harney, now editor of the radical journal The Northern Star. Although the Fraternal Democrats had a distinctly pro-worker make up, it was primarily an organisation that aimed to build a broadly-based campaign to promote democratic reforms at an international level. Such an orientation meant that Marx and Engels could not hope to win the Fraternal Democrats over to an openly communist platform. However, the contacts made through the Fraternal Democrats no doubt influenced Marx and Engels towards the idea of establishing an international communist organisation along similar lines, through which they could spread their ideas within the working class movement, and go beyond the German intellectual circles which had dominated their political activity.

Harney started his own journal, The Red Republican, and attempted to use it to educate his working class readers about socialism. The July 1850 issue explained:

‘As regards the working men swamping all other classes the answer is simple – other classes have no right to exist. To prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working class preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, is the mission of The Red Republican.’

In 1850, The Red Republican published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto and called it ‘The most revolutionary document ever given to the world’.


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