The Petition and the Blunderbuss – Remembering the Chartists

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Socialist Standard has reviewed my pamphlet, Bronterre O’Brien and the Chartist Uprisings of 1839, (David Black, Radical History Network Publications 2007). What follows is the review, a brief discussion of it, and the text of the pamphlet – minus the excellent illustrations.
Here is the review:

« James O’Brien contributed articles to the Poor Man’s Guardian under the pseudonym ‘Bronterre’ and eventually adopted it as his middle name. O’Brien soon became the Poor Man’s Guardian editor as it campaigned for universal suffrage at the time of the 1832 Reform Act. This Act however merely redistributed the vote amongst the owning class, leading to the drawing-up of the People’s Charter in response (‘essentially a program for universal male suffrage,’ according to Black) in 1838 by the London Working Men’s Association and the Birmingham Political Union. In June 1839 a mass petition was presented to, and rejected by, Parliament. Violent uprisings then occurred around the country, including a fierce battle in Newport, South Wales, in which 24 died and 50 were wounded by gunfire. After the Newport uprising was suppressed its leader, John Frost, was sentenced to death (later commuted to transportation for life) and O’Brien was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for making seditious speeches. Black’s short tract on this particular episode reads like a Trotskyist analysis of the event as a failure of leadership (in Trotskyist literature working class setbacks are always the result of a betrayal of leadership). Thus Black argues: ‘if the Rising in Monmouth had not been led by John Frost it might well have succeeded.’ Succeeded in doing what? Taking and holding Monmouth? Creating a revolutionary situation? Such fantasies were dismissed by O’Brien who had withdrawn from active involvement by this stage. According to Black: ‘He explained later that he could not conscientiously take part in secret projects which could only at best produce partial outbreaks, which would easily be crushed and would lead to increased persecution of the Chartists.’ The Chartist campaign lasted another 10 years before collapsing in failure. L.E.W. »

That’s the review. Actually I didn’t ‘argue’ that ‘if the Rising in Monmouth had not been led by John Frost it might well have succeeded’; rather I put the word ‘arguably’ in front of the ‘if’ and followed the sentence not with a quote by Trotsky, but the views of General Charles Napier the commander of the army in the North in 1839. Napier, with less than 10,000 troops at his disposal, recorded that if there had been simultaneous risings across the North, and if the military leadership of the Chartists hadn’t been so incompetent, his soldiers (many of whom were Chartist sympathizers) might not have been able to cope.
L.E.W. appears to believe that any discussion of the qualities of leadership in working class movements is ‘Trotskyist’; presumably because the only ‘correct’ leadership in the world for the last 100 years has been the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and it doesn’t matter a damn who leads anything else. L.E.W. may be a pacifist practitioner of ‘Politics as the Art of the Impossible’, but in dismissing Chartism as a ‘failure’ (how would the SPGB define success?), he forgets that this movement, forged by utopians, democrats, millenarians, communists and pike-wielding ‘extremists’, was fighting for the system of representative democracy that SPGB depends upon to put its programme into practice « peacefully. »
As Nietzsche once said « We need history, but not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it. » Walter Benjamin , in his 1939 Theses on the Philosophy of History, agreed, but saw « the struggling oppressed class itself » as the « depository of historical knowledge. » Benjamin pointed out that the social democrats had « thought fit to assign to the working-class the role of redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working-class forget both its hatred and spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren. »
The issues raised by the Chartists – democracy AND social justice – are still alive in the 21st Century. So I now offer the text of the original pamphlet for further debate.

chartist-attack.jpg

Bronterre O’Brien and the Chartist Uprisings of 1839

By David Black

This pamphlet reproduces a lecture given to the South Place Ethical Society 20 May 2007 and published in the Ethical Record Vol. 112 No.7 July 2007. Reprinted by permission of the Ethical Society (www.ethicalsoc.org.uk). Published by Radical History Network – North London. PO Box 45155 London N15 4WR

Historians of the Left have pointed out that, whereas in France the bourgeoisie had to fight a violent revolutionary war to extirpate the old feudal order, in England compromise was possible, because the Civil War and « Glorious Revolution » of the 17th century had already laid the foundations for civil (capitalist) society. After the French Revolution, the English industrial bourgeoisie and the landowning class feared the working class more than they feared each other. The compromise was consummated in the Whig’s Reform Act of 1832, which extended the electoral franchise to a good section of the middle class. But with still only seven hundred thousand voters in a land of twenty-five million subjects, the working class – who had supported the Whigs’ Reform agitation – felt betrayed and disappointed. And worse was to come: the radical press was persecuted; trade unionists were transported to Van Dieman’s Land; Ireland was subjected to a new paramilitary police force; and the New Poor Law of 1834 established the hated workhouse system. Discontent intensified in the late-1830s, when the rising speed of industrial development produced an economic crisis. In the North and Midlands a massive militant protest campaign was built up, in which workhouses were burned and the Poor Law commissioners subjected to hostile demonstrations and intimidation.

‘A Complete Subversion of the Existing World’

Possibly the most important radical intellectual of this period was Bronterre James O’Brien (1804-64), an Irish lawyer who moved to London and edited The Poor Mans Guardian and other working class publications. Influenced by Robert Owen, he described Owenite socialism as a new idea for ‘a complete subversion of the existing world. The working classes aspire to be at the top instead of at the bottom of society – or, rather that there should be no bottom at all.’ But O’Brien, who was also an admirer of Robespierre and Babeuf, thought that Owen lacked a historical understanding on the question of political power. O’Brien saw the conduct of the Whigs in the Reform Crisis of 1832 as akin to the manoeuvres of the Girondists of the French Revolution: both had given political power to the ‘small middlemen… in order to more effectively keep down the working classes.’ In 1836 O’Brien translated Phillipe Buonarroti’s first hand account of Gracchus Babeuf and Conspiracy for Equality. Babeuf, executed by the Directory in 1797, had wanted the French Constitution of 1793 implemented and to fulfill what he saw as the logic of the revolutionary class struggle: economic equality and common ownership of property.
Babeuf inspired O’Brien’s argument that the American and French Revolutions had left the ‘institutions of property’ intact, as ‘germs of social evil to ripen in the womb of time.’ The great democratic gains had been subverted by counter-revolution from ‘within and without.’ The next revolution therefore, had to be social as well as political: ‘from the laws of the few have the existing inequalities sprung; by the laws of the many they shall be destroyed.’ Owenism and French Babouvism were not the only socialistic ideas that influenced O’Brien and his supporters. There was also Thomas Spence’s program for expropriation of the big landowners in order to transform the land into a ‘People’s Farm,’ administered by a decentralized system of democracy in a ‘New Republic.’
In 1838 the five-point People Charter – essentially a program for universal male suffrage – was drawn up by some rather moderate men of the London Working Men’s Association and the Birmingham Political Union. Mass meetings throughout the kingdom elected delegates to a ‘National Convention,’ which was to meet in London in permanent session for the purpose of coordinating a petition campaign. Bronterre O’Brien was elected for London to the Convention at a meeting in Westminster. Another important Irishman elected was Feargus O’Connor, former MP for Cork, publisher of the enormously popular Northern Star newspaper and leading agitator against the workhouses.
On 4 February 1839, the day of the Queen’s opening of Parliament, the National Convention assembled at the British Coffee House, Cockspur Street, with fifty-five delegates. Robert Lowery, delegate from the North-East, recalled:
‘The British Coffee House being close by, those of us who had never seen her Majesty made a general rush to see her and her procession. Some of the gentlemen in waiting would have been astounded at the free criticisms and remarks made upon the beefeaters and paraphernalia of the procession.’

A Blunderbuss To Aid The Petition

As the National Convention got down to business, the first issue was the Petition itself. The moderates argued that the Convention should just collect as many signatures as possible and present them to Parliament. O’Brien thought otherwise. As he had previously said in a speech:
‘I would remind you [of]the story of Gil Blas – where a famous beggar, who levied his blackmail under the name of charity, used to present his petition with one hand whilst the finger of the other was applied to the blunderbuss to assist the prayer of the petition. That was a style of petition that never failed.’
On the extreme Left of the Convention, there were those like George Julian Harney, who had absorbed Bronterre’s writings on the French Revolution and sought to apply them in England. They argued that, as there was no chance of the Liberal government taking any notice of the Petition, ulterior measures needed to be drawn up and enacted immediately including, ‘exclusive dealing’ (what is now called a consumer boycott – in this case, of exisable commodities such alcohol and of anti-Chartist shopkeepers), the arming of the masses (to defend their ‘constitutional rights’) and a general strike. O’Brien however, argued that they would first need a lot more than the half-a-million signatures so far collected. He said:
‘At present the Convention stands as mediator between the suffering people and the House of Commons… and it would be absurd to talk of ulterior measures unless we have two or three millions of signatures.’
O’Brien also believed that the people would only support ulterior measures if and when parliament rejected the petition. He likened the petition to a ‘notice to quit’; failure to obey the notice would bring about the ejection of the class enemy from the House of Commons. The debate concluded with a decision that the Convention should encourage preparations to use force. In reaction, most of the moderates resigned, but this had little impact on the momentum that had built up by the spring of 1839. Huge demonstrations were taking place, muskets were being procured and pikes were being secretly manufactured in large numbers. The National Convention, supported by thousands of contributions to its ‘National Rent,’ was sending lecturers to every corner of the kingdom. Female Chartist Associations were being formed, even though it had been decided early on not to campaign for the Female Franchise, as the male leadership of the movement (many of whom did favour Women’s Rights) deemed that such a demand would hold up the enfranchisement of men.
In May the government lost a motion of no-confidence over its handling of the rebellions in Canada and Jamaica. If the government had fallen the consequences might have been dramatic. The National Convention had been discussing a plan of what to do in the event of a general election. At the hustings on election night there would be Chartist candidates in the constituencies. As was the custom, the candidates would make speeches and then there be a show of hands. If the Chartist won the count, one of the Whig of Tory candidates would demand a vote of the electors i.e. the middle-class property owners. Whatever the result, the Chartist candidate would claim to be the true representative of the constituents and would take his seat on the National Convention, which was the true ‘People’s Parliament.’ The Chartists would then organize a million-man march on London. They would camp on Hampstead Heath and send a delegation to Parliament to demand that either: the MPs approve the People’s Charter, or vacate the premises and allow the National Convention delegates to move in, or face an armed march on Parliament.

Parliament Rejects The Charter

But it was not to be. Sir Robert Peel’s party did a deal with Prime Minister Lord Melbourne over the ‘Queen’s Bedchamber Affair’ (not as interesting as it sounds) and the government survived. Parliament debated and rejected the Charter with very few dissensions. By this time the Metropolitan Police were arresting some of leaders of the movement for allegedly seditious speeches, so a proposal was put forward to move the Convention out of London. Bronterre O’Brien agreed; it would be safer, he suggested, ‘under the guns of Manchester or Birmingham’ (both towns had extensive arms factories manned by Chartist sympathizers). The Convention moved to Birmingham in June and the day it opened, a massive riot erupted in the town when police sent from London tried to stop speeches in the Bull Ring. This was followed by another big riot in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. At this time O’Brien was touring the country, giving speeches and he was indicted for making seditious speeches in Liverpool and Newcastle.
On 17 July the Convention finally voted to begin a month-long general strike on 12 August. But disagreements persisted. Feargus O’Connor favoured postponement and he and O’Brien moved that the Convention could not take upon itself ‘the responsibility of dictating the time or circumstances of such a strike,’ and should instead leave it to the people in the localities. John Warden, a physical-force supporter from Bolton, reminded O’Connor that according to his own paper, the Northern Star, ‘the whole country was organized and armed to the teeth.’ O’Connor retorted,
‘There has never appeared in the columns of the Northern Star a declaration that the people were armed, but on the contrary a constant regret that the people were not armed.’
O’Brien said,
‘In reference to what had been said about the people being armed, I believe that Mr. O’Connor has never said that they were armed, but has always contended that until the people were armed throughout the country, they would never get Universal Suffrage; or that if they did get it, they would not be able to keep it.’
All the delegates on the National Convention knew that there was a revolutionary logic to a general strike. There was no strike fund and people would have to eat. William Benbow had said that the only strike fund was ‘the cattle of a thousand hills.’ If the strikers were to seize the herds and raid the grain stores, the ruling classes would see this as an attack on private property (which they held sacred) and would call out the military. In Lancashire, where the cotton mills were on short time due to the depression, the owners wouldn’t have minded a ‘holiday’ from having to pay wages, so there was little momentum for a strike there; although further north, miners in Northumberland and Durham were already striking. In the end the Convention recommended holding a demonstration instead of a strike: ‘the great body of the working people, including most of the Trades, may be induced to cease work on the 12th instant, for two or three days,’ during which time they would hold meetings for ‘deliberating on the present awful state of the country, and devising the best means of ending the hideous despotism with which the industrious orders are menaced by the murderous majority of the upper and middle classes, who prey upon their labour.’
When, on 22 July, O’Brien moved that the Convention ‘cannot take upon ourselves the responsibility of dictating the time or circumstances of such a strike’ and instead should leave to the people in the localities, he was implicity overturning the raison d’etre of the Convention as expressed in its published manifesto, which had promised in the event of Parliament rejecting the petition, the Convention would ‘proceed to name the day’ when the strike would commence, ‘unless the measures of justice we are contending for have been previously conceded.’ For only a national body could organise universally; and the only national body was the Convention itself. O’Brien himself had argued that ‘if you strike universally, you strike successfully; but if partly unfavourably.’ Understandably, the local leaders now felt uneasy about asking workers to take actions which would turn out to be merely partial and localised.

All Credibility Lost

With the failure of the strike, the National Convention lost all credibility and in mid-September, delegates voted for dissolution. On its last day, Dr. John Taylor from Scotland advocated ‘resistance.’ ‘All constitutional law is at an end… brute force is now the order of the day,’ he pronounced. Taylor proposed a departing public statement by the Convention, which O’Brien described as a ‘thoroughly illegal and dangerous document’; and in the end no statement was agreed on.
In the last days of the Convention, just when John Frost was telling the delegates that the people of south Wales were not prepared to strike, resolutions arrived from his Monmouthshire ‘constituents’ calling for armed struggle as well as the strike. No sooner was the Convention wound up than a ‘Secret Council’ was formed by delegates favouring insurrectionary action. As they saw it, the ruling classes, inspired by the ‘damnable doctrine’ of the Reverend Malthus, had produced a New Poor Law which was a threat to the very existence of working class family life; the leaders of the working class were being hounded and persecuted; the Whigs were trying to establish County Police Forces in preparation for repression along the lines of what had been inflicted on the Irish; and ‘class legislations’ such as indirect taxation were widening the gap between rich and poor. In short the whole system was so corrupt and despotic that it needed to be brought down by force.
O’Brien did not join them. With the collapse of the Convention, he had decided to withdraw from the movement. He explained later that he could not conscientiously take part in secret projects which would at best only produce partial outbreaks, which would easily be crushed and would lead to increased persecution of the Chartists. O’Brien believed that physical force ‘should have no part unless it began with the oppressor, in which case, the oppressed would be bound (by the constitution itself), to resort to physical force in self-defence.’
On November 3 over 20,000 Chartist supporters in South Wales took up arms. They turned off the furnaces in the iron works and scoured the property of the coal owners and works managers in search of arms (most of the middle class fled the region in fear of their lives). 5.000 marched on Newport, led by John Frost, former mayor of that town – a very reluctant revolutionary who only wanted to be an MP and was quite incapable of violence himself. Elsewhere in the kingdom, members of the Secret Council had been preparing their own insurrections, notably in Newcastle, Carlisle, and throughout the West Riding of Yorkshire. But then when the news came through from Newport – 24 killed and fifty wounded by gunfire and John Frost and his comrades arrested and facing being hung, drawn and quartered for treason – the follow-up rebellions were hastily called off. Arguably, if the Rising in Monmouth had not been led by John Frost it might well have succeeded. The commander of the army in the North, General Charles Napier had less than 10,000 troops at his disposal. Napier recorded that if there had been simultaneous risings across the North, and if the military leadership of the Chartists hadn’t been so incompetent, his soldiers (many of whom were Chartist sympathizers) might not have been able to cope.
On 1 February 1840 death sentences passed on John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and Williams Jones were commuted to transportation for life. That same month, Bronterre O’Brien and Feargus O’Connor were tried by making seditious speeches. Their ‘moderate’ stance was not appreciated by the authorities, and they were sentenced to eighteen months imprisonment. So ended the first campaign of the Chartists.

David Black is co-editor of The Hobgoblinwww.thehobgoblin.co.uk – author of Helen Macfarlane: A Feminist, Revolutionary Journalist, And Philosopher In Mid-Nineteenth-Century England (Lexington USA 2004) and co-author, with Christopher Ford, of a book-in-progress on the Chartist Convention and Uprisings of 1839 (publishers’ enquiries welcome).

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5 Réponses to “The Petition and the Blunderbuss – Remembering the Chartists”

  1. mondialiste Says:

    I thought you would have known that the SPGB doesn’t believe in leadership, but is against it on principle. It doesn’t want workers to follow it, but for workers to act for themselves, consciously and democratically, and without leaders.

    J’aime

  2. Darren Says:

    The SPGB is putting itself forward as a « leadership »? That’s news to me . . . and the SPGB, probably.

    Btw, might have posted it before on the blog but you cab download an audio recording of a talk on Bronterre O’Brien via my blog:

    Bronterre O’Brien and Working Class Radicalism

    It was part of a lecture series entitled ‘Socialist Thinkers’, and dates from ’82.

    J’aime

  3. Lew Says:

    David Black wrote:

    > That’s the review. Actually I didn’t ‘argue’ that ‘if the Rising in
    > Monmouth had not been led by John Frost it might well have succeeded’;
    > rather I put the word ‘arguably’ in front of the ‘if’ and followed the
    > sentence not with a quote by Trotsky, but the views of General Charles
    > Napier the commander of the army in the North in 1839. Napier, with
    > less than 10,000 troops at his disposal, recorded that if there had
    > been simultaneous risings across the North, and if the military
    > leadership of the Chartists hadn’t been so incompetent, his soldiers
    > (many of whom were Chartist sympathizers) might not have been able
    > to cope.

    In his pamphlet David Black (not General Napier) said that the Monmouth Uprising « might well have succeeded. » The crucial word here is « succeeded » and in my review I asked: « Succeeded in doing what? Taking and holding Monmouth? Creating a revolutionary situation? » Whatever the difficulties faced by General Napier and his army, they do not support Black’s inference that the Monmouth Uprising could have been successful in the terms that I posed in the questions. If General Napier really couldn’t cope then he would have been replaced or supplied with enough force to crush the revolt. The « physical force » wing of Chartism was always a small minority and, as I argued in my review, it is sheer fantasy to suppose that they could have been successful in any meaningful sense of the word.

    > L.E.W. appears to believe that any discussion of the qualities of
    > leadership in working class movements is ‘Trotskyist’; presumably
    > because the only ‘correct’ leadership in the world for the last 100
    > years has been the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and it doesn’t
    > matter a damn who leads anything else.

    Here David Black reveals that he is unable to think outside the leadership box. No, the Socialist Party does not offer leadership. We take seriously Marx’s logic that the emancipation of the working class can only be achieved by the working class itself; and this necessarily precludes the role of leadership.

    > L.E.W. may be a pacifist
    > practitioner of ‘Politics as the Art of the Impossible’, but in
    > dismissing Chartism as a ‘failure’ (how would the SPGB define
    > success?), he forgets that this movement, forged by utopians,
    > democrats, millenarians, communists and pike-wielding ‘extremists’,
    > was fighting for the system of representative democracy that SPGB
    > depends upon to put its programme into practice « peacefully. »

    Chartism was a failure. It had no discernible effect on the eventual extension of the vote, which owed more to divisions within the ruling class than anything else. Trade unions were successfully established in the early 19thC in the face of severe state repression. The continuing existence of the Socialist Party must be counted as a success, but the Socialist Party’s case does not so much depend upon representative democracy as working class self-emancipation; in contrast to the Trotskyist fixation with leadership which has always been a failure for the working class.

    Loved the book on Helen Macfarlane, by the way, which I also reviewed in the Socialist Standard.


    Lew

    J’aime

  4. londonhobgoblin Says:

    Lew says: “The ‘physical force’ wing of Chartism was always a small minority and, as I argued in my review, it is sheer fantasy to suppose that they could have been successful in any meaningful sense of the word.”

    Rather than just condescendingly dismiss these people as “fantasists”, Chris Ford and I prefer to investigate what they believed, why they believed it, what they did and why they did it. That way we might actually learn something from history. But Lew is simply repeating the myths put about in the outdated scholarship of the Labourist historians.

    In the first phase of Chartism (which is what our findings are concerned with – the later phases are another story) the categories of physical-force and moral force were not seen as competing moral/political philosophies, but as tactics, to be judged by their effectiveness, often in conjunction with each other. Only a minority of delegates to the National Convention completely rejected physical-force tactics. The mainstream leadership, represented by O’Connor and O’Brien (who both had massive popular support) did not reject physical force. Rather, as I point out in the text, O’Connor’s Northern Star expressed a “constant regret that the people were not armed.” And O’Brien agreed: that “until the people were armed throughout the country, they would never get Universal Suffrage; or that if they did get it, they would not be able to keep it.” While O’Connor and O’Brien did reject the arguments of the ‘extremists’ in the Convention (known as the ‘Montagne’ or ‘Junta’), this was not because they disagreed with armed struggle but because they believed that masses were not sufficiently ready to wage it.

    Secondly, as regards the chances of “success,” it is clear that the armed rebels in Monmouth would have equated “success” with fulfilling their plan to overcome the few dozen troops guarding Newport and seize the town. If they had “succeeded,” other towns in South Wales would undoubtedly have gone the same way, given the high level of armed mobilisation and the timidity of the local middle classes (who fled the area en masse).
    Furthermore, the Monmouth rebellion was not organized in isolation. Chris Ford and I know from our research that in important areas, such as the West Riding and Newcastle, the armed « extremists » would have had enough support to launch their own insurrections, immediately on hearing that Frost had seized Newport. In the event of that possible chain reaction – call it a “a revolutionary situation” if you must – the government would have had to either compromise with the Chartists or wage a civil war.
    Thirdly, Lew claims that Chartism had no historical effect because the eventual extension of the vote « owed more to divisions within the ruling class than anything else.” And why would the ruling class have divisions Lew? Could it be that they were divided on how best to rule a working class that already had a rich history of democratic resistance and struggles for economic emancipation and showed no sign of just giving up? Isn’t all history the history of class struggles? Also I would point out that before 1839 the ruling class equated the word “democrat” with Jacobin, Leveller and demagogue. Yet within a decade of the final collapse of Chartism (in 1858, NOT 1848), the first meaningful steps towards Universal Suffrage were enacted by Parliament and the idea of “democracy” was generally accepted. And aren’t you glad of that Lew?

    David Black
    P.S. In fairness perhaps I should have pointed out that the SPGB denies having a concept of leadership, but I would have had to add that I find the denial unconvincing because it stands in contradiction to key elements of the party’s doctrine. For example, the SPGB Statement of Principles “calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system…” At that point the working class would be under a leadership – in the form of a parliamentary majority of SPGB members who would transform the administrative, judicial and military machinery of government « from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation. » In or out of my « box » that looks like leadership to me.
    David Black

    J’aime

  5. Darren Says:

    « For example, the SPGB Statement of Principles “calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system…” At that point the working class would be under a leadership – in the form of a parliamentary majority of SPGB members who would transform the administrative, judicial and military machinery of government “from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation.” In or out of my “box” that looks like leadership to me.
    David Black »

    Sorry, but that looks like someone who doesn’t know a lot about the SPGB and its history to me.

    J’aime

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