Archives d’un auteur

A ‘Lost Text’ found – David Brown v. Maurice Brinton (1975)

21 janvier 2011

Présentation d’un document inédit publié par nos amis marxistes-humanistes anglais de The Hobgoblin: une lettre de démission et une critique du groupe Solidarity dont nous avons plusieurs parlé, datées de 1975.

History Matters


A ‘Lost Text’ from 1975 rediscovered: David Brown on the ‘Illusions’ of Maurice Brinton and Cornelius Castoriadis

Editorial notes by the Hobgoblin Collective:

Hobgoblin has published (online) for the first time a text, written in 1975 as a letter to the membership of the Solidarity group – also known as ‘Solidarity For Workers Power’. This group was founded in 1960 by Chris Pallis, an eminent neurologist who wrote under the name “Maurice Brinton,” and Ken Weller, a young shop steward working in the motor industry. The group, initially known as Socialism Reaffirmed, published a journal, Agitator, which after six issues was renamed Solidarity. Both Brinton and Weller had previously been members of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League, founded amidst the mass defections from the Communist Party after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. As Richard Abernethy put in an obituary for Chris Pallis in Hobgoblin in 2005,

“Solidarity punctured and deflated some favourite left-wing illusions. It recognised that there was no actually existing socialism, no worker’s states, in the world. Notwithstanding all differences between the Western capitalist bloc, the Eastern bloc ruled by Communist parties, and the Third World, the basic divide between rulers and ruled existed everywhere.”

The Solidarity group, despite never having much more than a hundred members, was influential, not least because Solidarity became the main conduit of the political theories of Cornelius Castoriadis aka Paul Cardan (1922-97), founder of Socialisme ou Barbarie in France.

The resignation statement by Solidarity member, David Brown, was written at a time (1975) when the group was in decline, facing splits and having to deal with the fact that Castoriadis/Cardan had, following the demise of Socialisme ou Barbarie in 1965, moved to the Right. Brown, was influenced by French ex-Bordigist, Jacques Camatte, some of whose writings he translated, by the Russian value-theorist, II Rubin, and by Karl Korsch, author of Marxism and Philosophy. According to Brown, Castoriadis and Solidarity shared with the traditional left a restricted understanding of Marx’s ideas, not recognising the liberatory core of Marx’s Capital, and taking the shortcoming of the traditional left as grounds for breaking with Marx. Brown argues that Castoriadis, Brinton and the Solidarity group misunderstood the cardinal term of the Marx’s critique of political economy – value. Brown writes:

“The attack on the labour theory of value is only a prelude to a more general attack on the materialist conception of history. By reducing the general conception of the mode of production to mean technology and the word ‘determine’ to mean the same as ‘cause’, a simple transformation of marxism into banality follows.”

Castoriadis had argued that,

« The revolutionary movement… must become the place (the only place in contemporary society, outside the factory) where… individuals learn about collective life, run their own affairs and fulfill and develop themselves, working for a common objective in reciprocal recognition. »

Brown finds this position to be “entirely false,” and argues (following Jacques Camatte) that “all organisations are despotic” because, basing themselves on “critique of other organisations and individuals” they are “already” the conception of competitive capital.

Two of the editors of The Hobgoblin (Richard Abernethy and George Shaw) are former members of the Solidarity group. As Marxist-Humanists, we do not agree with a lot of the positions David Brown expressed in 1975. If the statement that “all organisations are despotic” means that all attempts to overcome atomization and individual isolation are doomed, then we certainly disagree, believing, as we do, in a philosophically-grounded alternative to capitalism – something Castoriadis, as a “positivist,” never even considered. Nor do we agree that “support for oppressed peoples” was part of the degeneration of Marxism (this in spite of Marx’s own statements on Ireland, Poland etc), or saying that people who voted Labour in 1974 « voted for capitalism. »

We are publishing this text not only because of its historical interest as a critique of a (dead) organization of the Left, once significant (and still influential “beyond the grave,” through the works of its theoreticians and the legacy of its activists) , but also because of the general theoretic questions it raises have, in the 21st century Left, not been surpassed.


Voir aussi:

Ten Days That Shook the British Left: the Oil Refinery Wildcats

6 février 2009

EDITORIAL – 6 Feb 2009

The strike at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire and the wave of solidarity wildcats have been described by John McDonnell MP, as « Ten Days That Shook New Labour ». Sections of the Left are claiming the result as a victory. But who has won?

On Thursday (5 Feb) it was announced that the settlement would allocate 102 additional jobs out of 200 at the construction site to “local” workers. No Italian workers will be sent home, although less will be arriving to make up the 200. This would suggest (for those who see it in such terms) that the international jobs playing field is “leveled” and the match drawn. But is it? According to Channel 4 News, such a deal would be illegal under the employment discrimination law; and the Italian contractors, for their part, have agreed only to “advertise the jobs locally.” And for what it’s worth – which may not be much – the union leaders have got the engineering and construction employers association to “ensure” that UK contractors « will always explore and consider the local skills availability and to consider any applications that may be forthcoming » (as if they’d ever admit to doing anything else). No cast-iron guarantees there, but good enough for GMB union leader Phil Whitehurst, who says: « This time last week there was going to be no UK labour employed on the contract and now we’ve been given 102 positions. It’s highly significant. » And this in a period in which manufacturing jobs are disappearing at a rate of 30,000 a month!

It is clear that the grievances of the workers stem in part from the sub-contracting procedures now being used on construction sites. Recent EU court rulings have given a green light to employers in one country to employ sub-contractors from another country in order to undercut union-negotiated agreements. Unfortunately the response of the British union leaders is to fly the tatty flag of New Labour nationalism. Unite general secretary Derek Simpson says,

« The problem is that employers are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on these contracts…. The government must act to level the playing field for UK workers. No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job. »

But how the sloping playing-field theory squares with the fact that there are 47,000 temporary UK workers « posted » in Europe and only 15,000 foreign workers posted in the UK is not clear. Probably the best trade union sentiments expressed so far have come from the CGIL, Italy’s biggest union federation. In a 2 February press release Sabrina Petrucci and Nicola Nicolosi of CGIL say that “The current economic crisis, caused by a capitalist system devoted to financial speculation, lacking rules, and centred on debt, is producing one of the worst social evils: the poor against the poor, workers against workers.” “What’s going on in Lincolnshire is one of the ugliest pages in the history of the trade union movement in these globalised times: English workers against Italian workers,.” however, they add, “We have a duty to understand the workers’ unhappiness. The consequences of European judgements on the labour market, on the right to free movement of goods and people, are multiplying, opening the door to social dumping,” which “becomes an opportunity for the firms to cut labour costs and creates unfair competition.” Noting that the Italian contractor at Lindsey is a non-union firm, they conclude, “the economic and financial crisis can’t be fought within national boundaries, even if these English workers are given a response within their national boundary: we need a European and global trade union initiative to support the unemployed and for new social and industrial policies and perspectives.”

Nationalism and the Left

The first TV pictures of the picket lines showed Union Jacks and nationalist placards with slogans such as ‘British Jobs for British Workers‘ and ‘Put British Workers First’. Initially, the reaction of those on Left who like to put anti-BNP leaflets through letter boxes telling British workers (patronizingly and insultingly) ‘Don’t Vote Nazi’, was one of sheer panic. On Monday (2 Feb), for example, a section of the Alliance for Workers Liberty attempted to organise a picket of Unite HQ to get the “reactionary” strike called off (the picket was “snowed off” and in any case the line changed to “critical support” later in the week). As it turned out, there were virtually no manifestations of outright racism on the picket lines, and the BNP failed to make any impact on the strikers. The Socialist Party militants among the strikers who took the lead in shooing off the BNP pamphleteers are to be congratulated. A motion passed at one of the mass meetings called for Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers and the building of links with construction trade unions on the continent.

John McDonnell says that the British working class is now “without political representation” (quite a statement coming from a Labour MP) and too restricted by anti-union laws to mobilise through official union channels. Therefore, he says, “there is no other route but to take but direct action when fear for jobs turns to anger.” As for the nationalist sloganising, he says that “In any dispute or struggle [solidarity] doesn’t mean blindly accepting either the analysis or demands of those directly engaged in the dispute… Disputes are at times chaotic with goals sometimes ill defined and often quickly evolving.” []

McDonnell is addressing the Lukacsian-Leninist problematic: the contradiction between empirical and ascribed class consciousness i.e. between what workers think the issue is and what the issue supposedly really is. The solution for some – trust the professional revolutionaries of the vanguard party – was never viable and can hardly be attempted in a working class which is “without political representation”. As usual, the vanguardists have come up with lists of “alternative” demands, which they tell the workers they “must” fight for. Some on the Left refused to support the strike in the absence of such demands being approved, whilst others, offered support on the grounds that the strikers are “our people”, right or wrong, left or right.

As non-vanguardist Marxist-humanists we do not tell workers engaged in class struggle what to do or what to think; rather, like Marx, we modestly offer “critical insight” into the “real movement.” The wildcats are a real movement inasmuch as they have displayed the power of direct unofficial action and shown up the British Trade Union movement, chained by anti-union laws and useless leadership, as unfit for purpose. But they are not so “real” as class struggle, inasmuch as the strike was nationalist in both form and content: after all the strike began in reaction to the use of foreign labour and was organized at a purely national level. Inasmuch as the results can described as in any way positive they are miserable – a promise to “consider” employing 102 local (read British) workers.

What Next?

In a globalised economy, which may be sliding towards a depression, lessons must be learned, and fast. As socialists we need to say what we are for, not just what we are against and make it concrete.

We are for No Immigration Controls and we fight for decent working conditions for all workers.

In the context of the above strikes we support all workers, EU and non-EU alike, being employed on decent working conditions and – in reference to the current disputes – employed under the exisiting agreements on the sites in question.

What does this mean concretely for trade unionists and socialists? It means we do not pass solidarity resolutions in trade union branches supporting the stikes, without criticising nationalist demands, such as “British Jobs for British Workers.”

It means we do not back requests to join picket lines to stop other workers going into work on the basis of the such demands.

It does mean supporting actions for better conditions for all workers and counterposing this to “British Jobs for British Workers .”

The above is not going to be easy to argue for in a period of recession where workers still feel they have more in common with the nation state than their fellow workers in Italy, Africa or China . However not to do so is a dead end. The current British reaction to out-of-control capitalism resembles the people asleep on a train who wake up to find nobody is driving it and then carry out panic attacks on the other passengers. It is not good enough to support the strikes and then somehow argue that they are “really” about underlying issues. We need to state clearly that we are against strikes that make nationalist (or racist) demands. We do have to say however that we are in favour of strikes that are about decent conditions for all workers and which target the real enemy – capital – and not just its real and imaginary personifications.

6 February 2009

Droits réservés (probablement AFP)

Comment Platon était-il rouge?

9 septembre 2008

How Red Was Plato?

By David Black

No capitalist would want to live in a Republic like Plato’s, which excludes from goverment all those who pursue wealth at the expense of others. Even worse for them, to make sure they stay excluded, the Republic forbids any individual from accumulating inordinate riches.


Aucun capitaliste ne voudrait vivre dans une République comme celle de Platon, qui exclut du gouvernement tous ceux qui visent la richesse au détriment des autres. Pire encore pour eux, afin de s’assurer qu’ils en restent exclus, la République interdit à l’individu d’accumuler des richesses excessives. [Lire en anglais sur The Hobgoblin.]

Chicago meeting on Crisis in Marxist Thought now on Youtube

2 septembre 2008

The meeting described below, held July 26 2008 can now be seen on Youtube in 12 parts.

Start here:
The Crisis in Marxist Thought
Friday, July 25, 2008 6-9PM
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
112 S. Michigan Ave. ballroom
public forum of the Marxist-Humanist Committee
panel presentations and audience Q&A by:
Kevin Anderson
Chris Cutrone (Platypus)
Peter Hudis
Andrew Kliman
Sandra Rein
hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society
The Crisis in Marxist Thought

Cyril Smith 1929-2008

31 mai 2008

By David Black, co-editor

Cyril Smith was one of those rare radical thinkers: one who, after many decades of commitment to a particular Leftist cause, could face radical changes in the world by radicalizing his own ideas. Cyril, in fact, wrote his best works after his retirement (from teaching statistics at the London School of Economics) in the early 1990s. His book, Marx at the Millenium (1996) was a devastating and at times witty attack on what he had previously upheld as “Marxism.” In the positive sense it was a renewed interpretation of Marx as a “revolutionary humanist.” The book shocked as many of his erstwhile Trotskyist comrades as it delighted his new readers and reinvigorated the best of his old friends.
Summarising his critique of the “Marxists” in his last book, Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005), he wrote, “They developed a ‘theory of history’ called ‘historical materialism’, an ‘economic doctrine’, sometimes referred to as ‘Marxist economics’, and a philosophical outlook, called ‘dialectical materialism’. None of this was to be found in the writings of Karl Marx…”
Marx, Cyril argued, conceived of humanity as “socially self-creating.” This conception is not a ‘doctrine’ or ‘theory’, which separates the ‘teacher’ from the ‘ordinary’ person being taught. In doctrines, such as political economy, “entities like money, capital and the state are crazily accepted as subjects; at the same time, we treat each other and ourselves, not as free, self-creating subjects, but as if we were things. So we are necessarily cut off from understanding ourselves.”
In Marx at the Millenium Cyril probed the problem of how the alienated dogmas of “scientific socialism” were inextricably linked with bourgeois “natural science” – a problem that had assumed greater importance with the claim that the latter has triumphed over the former. Cyril tackled recent issues concerning Artificial Intelligence and Sociobiology and concluded that “Marxism,” like “science,” is concerned only with the study of various kinds of objects – whether “productive forces”, brain cells or genes – but “cannot see the one nearest home – ourselves.”
In Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, Cyril traced the origins of “self-creation” in pre-Enlightenment thought and showed how it re-emerged in the dialectical thinking of Hegel and Marx (and the visionary poetry of William Blake). The scientific-rationalists and their “Marxist” inheritors had seen the natural world “in terms of mechanically interacting particles of matter and humanity as a collection of individuals.” Cyril contrasted this view with the pre-Enlightenment “mystics, Hermetics and magicians,” for whom the human is only an aspect of the natural and vice versa:
“… Hegel takes the side of the magicians on this issue: the movements of nature, history and psychology all express the unfolding of Spirit. But what about Marx? Does human self-emancipation, a task for humans to tackle in practice, require any specific conception of the universe? In the inhuman shell of private property, money, capital and the state, Marx uncovers the source of the mystery of self-creation. Once that ‘integument has burst asunder’, relations within a free association of producers, truly human relations, will be transparent and thus so will the relationship between nature and humanity as a whole.”
Unsurprisingly, Cyril’s new thinking attracted the attention of Marxist-Humanists who, like him, wish to emphasize the unity and totality of Karl Marx’s thought; and are exercised by the inadequacies of post-Marx “Marxists” (beginning with Engels) as continuators; and investigate the relation between Marx’s dialectic and Hegel’s. Cyril discussed these issues at Marxist-Humanist meetings in London, and met with several US Marxist-Humanists in London, New York and elsewhere. His contact with the Americans led to publication of Karl Marx and the Future of the Human by Lexington Books as part of the Raya Dunayevskaya Series in Marxism and Humanism.
Our debates with Cyril, whether in person or by email, or in the pages of Hobgoblin and News and Letters were serious, enlightening, often maddening and never ever dull. If there was a sticking point it was that Cyril refused to accept our projection for a unity of Philosophy and Organisation. Cyril would agree with Raya Dunayevskaya on the need to uproot capitalist production and reunify mental and manual abilities in the individual. He would not agree that philosophy, for our own time, might be other than a contemplative or formalist theory of external objects and events. Deleuze and Guattari wrote « We cannot imagine a great philosopher of whom it could not be said that he has changed what it means to think—those who do not renew the image of thought are not philosophers. » But Cyril would not accept this. He wrote “Throughout its history, philosophy—has been the highest expression of private property, class division, state power, and other alienated social forms » (Karl Marx and the Future of the Human, p. 49).
Peter Hudis disagreed with him, responding:
“Philosophy is distinct from theory in that it recognizes the profound relation between the subject and the world in seeking to grasp the nature of the ‘thing itself’. And the ‘thing itself’ refers not only to external objects but also to the categories which underlay human cognition. Philosophy is different from theory as it is traditionally understood… Philosophy subjects everything to self-examination, including its own premises—not for the sake of simply tearing things down (that would be mere sophistry!) but as part of creating something new.” [Working out a Philosophically Grounded Vision of the Future, News and Letters Bulletin August 2005]
But on this sad occasion we should give the last word to Cyril Smith. We can do no better in celebrating his life, and recognizing that our differences with him concerned key issues for future development of revolutionary thought), than republishing below his article on Raya Dunayevskaya from 2000.

Philosophic dialogue on Raya Dunayevskaya’s ‘Critical comments on notes on Hegel’s Smaller Logic’
By Cyril Smith
It is nearly half a century since I first saw some of the writings of Raya Dunayevskaya. Alas, I was too narrowminded then to see what she was trying to do. Only recently have I started to study her work seriously and come to appreciate her pioneering work in uncovering Marx’s humanism and investigating its relationship to Hegel’s philosophy. The publication by NEWS & LETTERS of this work is a great contribution to the task of regenerating the international movement for socialism.
However, as is the fate of all pioneers, history unfolds and overtakes even the most farsighted of thinkers. So I offer some critical comments, occasioned by the 1961 lecture on Hegel’s Smaller LOGIC which you have recently published, only with the greatest respect. I believe that, during the quarter of a century which still remained to her after that lecture, Raya herself began to move in some of the directions I point to here. I contend that it is necessary for us to continue this process, rather than leave the subject where she left it at the time of her death.
Like many of her generation and ours, Raya Dunayevskaya started with Lenin’s study of Hegel in 1914-15. With the indispensable help of his rough notes and of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts—not, of course, available to Lenin—she began her own independent study of Hegel. Only later did she begin to see the severe limitations of Lenin’s struggle to break out of the falsifications of Marx’s ideas in the Second International. That, I think, is the significance of her emphasis on Hegel’s opening chapters of the Smaller LOGIC, the three « Attitudes to Objectivity. »
In my opinion, these pages reveal sides of Hegel’s logic of which Lenin had no conception. Hegel is not describing a special « method, » which can be detached from his notions of reality, or his conception of history and the state. Rather, he is presenting the essential heart of the relations of bourgeois society and the forms of consciousness which reflect these relations. No mere philosophy can do more. What Marx accomplished went beyond any philosophy.
That is why I cannot accept Raya’s admonition, following Lenin, that we must « constantly deepen » Hegel’s content, « through a materialistic, historical ‘translation’. » To try to do this, I think, is to miss the point of Marx’s « Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic and Philosophy as a Whole, » the most important of the 1844 manuscripts. Here Marx shows that Hegel stays within the confines of philosophy, and thus remains at home within what he called « estrangement. » He also attacks Hegel because he « posited man as equivalent to self-consciousness. »
In the first of his Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Marx praises idealism – here that means Hegel – for « abstractly setting forth the active side, » and condemns materialism. However, he also says that idealism « does not know real, sensuous activity, » only spiritual, mental activity. No philosophy, whether « materialist » or « idealist, » could ever grasp « the significance of « revolutionary, » of « practical critical » activity.
Marx’s two-sided attitude to Hegel leads me to be cautious about Dunayevskaya’s statement about the last section of the LOGIC, which she thinks is « the philosophical framework which most applies to our own age. » After all, she quotes quite correctly Hegel’s statement that « the truths of philosophy are valueless apart from their interdependence and organic union. » But that implies that we can’t pick out those bits of Hegel’s work which appear to fit in with our own revolutionary ideas. We must take him as a whole. Remember that Hegel clearly situates his massive system of thought within the historical context of his own time and place, in the aftermath of the French revolution in backward Germany. « Applying » it to the 21st ce ntury, it seems to me, is to do it injury, and to blunt Marx’s critique.
I believe that Dunayevskaya’s refusal to attend to Hegel’s PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT, illustrates this mistaken attitude. Marx actually made this book the startingpoint for his lifelong struggle with Hegel, when he wrote his 1843 « Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State. » I know that the old « Marxist » story about Hegel « upholding the Prussian State » was always nonsense. (Marx and Engels never went along with it.) And I am not excusing Hegel’s dreadful racism and sexism. But this, his last book, plays a vital part in the Hegelian system. Look at his summary of it in the Philosophy of Mind, the section called « Objective Spirit. »
As I see it, we should see Raya’s work on Hegel as one stage of the struggle of revolutionary humanism to emerge from the shadow of the Russian revolution, the Stalinist degeneration and the only partially successful attempt of Trotskyism to grasp its meaning. Almost unanimously, the Second International ignored Hegel, and clung to a positivist falsification of Marx. Lenin and his followers broke with the opportunism of the old International, but in my opinion they remained trapped within its philosophical framework. Their « attitude to objectivity » took the form of an uneasy combination of empiricism and subjectivism.
Above all, they were unable to approach Marx’s conception of freedom, of « universal human emancipation. » Revolution came to be seen as the work of a « leadership, » rather than the self-conscious work of the proletariat as a whole. Dunayevskaya’s « Marxist humanism » was a breakthrough precisely because it drew directly on the work of Marx and Hegel. Now we have to take that work further, grasping in particular the critical relationship of these two thinkers.
As the new century opens up, a new generation, free from the effects of past defeats, enters into global struggles. Not surprisingly, these young people start with all kinds of confusion and illusions. In freeing themselves from these problems, will they have to follow the same tortuous path which we had to negotiate? I don’t think they will. Instead, I believe that they will find their own way to discover and surpass the liberatory notions of Marx. The priority today is to help them in that task.
This article appeared in News and Letters July 2000

Cyril Smith’s major works are online at The Cyril Smith Archive:

Crisis in ‘News and Letters’

12 mars 2008

The Chicago-based Marxist-Humanist paper, News and Letters, founded by Raya Dunayevskaya and Black auto-worker Charles Denby over fifty years ago, has been rocked by an internal dispute, that has resulted in a boycott, if not a strike, by supporters who have constituted themselves as the “Marxist Humanist Tendency.” These include the managing editor, two of the columnists and most of the paper’s contributors, including the National Co-organizer of the News and Letters Committees.

The crisis does not yet constitute an organizational split, because the issues need to be debated by the whole membership of the News and Letters Committees at a forthcoming special national convention. It is important to note that the Marxist-Humanists have, in recent years, achieved considerable success in promoting dialogue at the international level, thanks largely to supporters of the MHT, such as authors Kevin Anderson, Peter Hudis and Andrew Kliman, who have also secured several new translations of Dunayevskaya’s writings. Although not a member of the MHT, I have signed the statement, along with other British Marxist-Humanists. As a longtime friend of News and Letters, I believe that in the “changed world” of the 21st Century the paper has suffered from a “business-as-usual” attitude. A revolutionary paper that does not constantly renew itself and test its historical legacy and perspectives in the face of real-time objective developments runs the risk of a becoming a « monument » by default.

David Black

The full statement of the Marxist Humanist Tendency can be read on the website of the London Corresponding Committee:

The MHT comrades have launched their own website at

The Petition and the Blunderbuss – Remembering the Chartists

4 mars 2008

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.


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 ( 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 – 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).