Politics First

Jose Harris

  • The Chartists by Dorothy Thompson
    Temple Smith, 399 pp, £19.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 85117 229 6
  • Languages of Class: Studies in English Working-Class History 1832-1982 by Gareth Stedman Jones
    Cambridge, 260 pp, £22.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 521 25648 8
  • Class Power and State Power by Ralph Miliband
    Verso, 310 pp, £18.50, March 1984, ISBN 0 86091 073 3

Chartism has long been, and continues to be, of interest to historians on many different levels. To analysts of institutional change the campaign for the People’s Charter between 1837 and 1848 has been a major, if at the time abortive, episode in the history of parliamentary democracy. To labour historians, Chartism has been mainly significant as the medium of a great upsurge of autonomous working-class consciousness and working-class culture. To the historian of ideas, and to the would-be theorist of industrial change, Chartism was the crucible within which Marx and Engels forged their analysis of class relationships and the role of the bourgeois state. All these perspectives have given the scattered events of Chartism a historical meaning far beyond their immediate importance – which in terms of tangible political triumphs and achievements was remarkably slight. Moreover, as Asa Briggs plausibly argued in Chartist Studies, all these viewpoints tended to endow Chartism with an inner coherence and organisational identity not justified by the historical facts. In Briggs’s view, Chartism was not one but a cluster of movements all sheltering uneasily under the Chartist banner. It drew its support from obsolescent handloom weavers, skilled artisans and factory operatives who had no common economic base to unite them. Its political energies were hopelessly divided between those whose main goal was manhood suffrage and those more interested in factory reforms, Poor Law reform, Stamp Act repeal and a host of other lesser campaigns.

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