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.

Briggs’s emphasis on the diversity and episodic character of Chartism has pervaded Chartist historiography for the past quarter of a century, and has stimulated a whole school of detailed and scholarly local studies. The older view of Chartism as a movement greater than the sum of its parts has, however, never wholly died out. Edward Thompson concluded his The Making of the English Working Class in 1963 by nominating the Chartists as heirs of that new, nation-wide working-class identity which he believed had been forged by the exclusion of the propertyless from the Reform Act of 1832. This theme is now taken up and reasserted by Dorothy Thompson in a book which appears in some respects to be a sequel to her husband’s earlier work. Mrs Thompson is already the author of a classic bibliography of Chartism and the co-editor of an important collection of essays, and her new book represents the fruits of over twenty years of research into this most protean of historical subjects. She surveys the Chartist movement from a variety of different angles: its occupational and regional composition, its links with other radical causes, the rivalries between the various Chartist leaders, and the confrontations that occurred between Chartists and the political and legal authorities. Her overall aim is to present Chartism, not merely as a portmanteau of local grievances, but as a genuinely national radical movement, coherent in vision and ambitious in scope.

In developing her argument Mrs Thompson challenges, modifies or develops received opinion in a number of ways. She questions the view, commonly held by many of the Chartists themselves, that their difficulties were due to divided and arrogant leadership. She strongly defends the moral and charismatic appeal of Feargus O’Connor, ascribes complaints against him to the malice of Bronterre O’Brien, and claims that no other radical movement throughout Europe had ‘the same continuity of personnel and organisation’. She also defends O’Connor for refusing an accommodation with the radical middle class, claiming that the essence of Chartism lay in its exclusive embodiment of working-class interests. ‘The name of the Charter defined the working-class radical movement and distinguished it from middle-class radicals’: something which she believes O’Connor perceived much more clearly than his rivals and critics. At the same time, however, Mrs Thompson holds that ‘Chartism has ... been seen too much in terms of its leaders or would-be leaders’, and her own focus is upon the recovery of lost fragments of evidence relating to the rank and file.

One of the charms of her work is the fleshing-out of Chartist history with miniature profiles of forgotten Chartist heroes – among them Daniel McN’aghten of McN’aghten Rules fame who was consigned to Bedlam with the clinical diagnosis: ‘Imagines the Tories are his enemies.’ A whole chapter is devoted to ‘hen Chartists’ and particularly their involvement in the anti-Poor Law campaign (there is no reference to the charge recently made by Barbara Taylor that Chartists in general and O’Connorites in particular were indifferent and often hostile to women’s concerns). On Chartist policies Mrs Thompson challenges the conventional dichotomy between moral and physical-force Chartism, arguing that this was a debate merely on tactics and strategy, never on fundamental principle. On more general issues of theory and methodology she is highly crititical of ‘many Marxian and other economic historians’ who have seen Chartism as a primarily negative and reactionary movement ‘aiming simply to put back the clock of economic advance’. She claims on the contrary that the Chartists offered a rational and viable alternative to laissez-faire capitalism – an alternative which ‘put political control at the head of their demands and which required that that control be used among other things to monitor the effects of changes in technology and conditions of employment.’ At the same time, however, Dorothy Thompson is equally critical of those who exaggerate the ‘modernistic’ impulses of Chartism and ignore its archaic roots in a long-established tradition of plebeian political theatre. The reality was that throughout ‘the towns and villages of Britain’ Chartists used ‘processions, carnivals, theatrical performances, camp meetings, sermons and services to put across the message of the six points. Flags, banners, caps of liberty, scarves, sashes and rosettes ... slogans from the Bible, from literature and from earlier radical movements decorated the banners and placards they carried ... every aspect of the religious and cultural life of the communities was brought into service to press home the Chartist message. The result was a movement ... in which a national programme and a national rhetoric were able to hold together the disparate local components, and to provide a sense of national purpose which was its most important element.’

Dorothy Thompson’s account of Chartism is bound to become a standard one, and its major strengths and weaknesses are worth noting. Her claim that the roots of Chartism should be sought in an ancient populist culture seems to me wholly convincing; and I was also largely persuaded by her argument that, for all its local and fragmentary character, Chartism did acquire political meaning on a national scale. On the other hand, a major weakness of her approach is the almost total absence of an economic context. No sense is conveyed at any point of the very real problems of crisis and scarcity that beset the British economy in the 1840s. If the whole of national income had been equally distributed in 1841, the result in terms of real living standards would still have been 25 per cent below what later Victorian social scientists defined as a subsistence minimum – a fact which suggests that the mass privation of the period cannot solely be ascribed to the malignity of Malthusians and industrial employers.

Where I found Mrs Thompson’s argument least convincing, however, and indeed at times virtually unintelligible, was in her constant assertion that Chartism was a definitive and exclusive expression of the life of the working class. That Chartism involved intense feelings of class antagonism and class loyalty is impossible to deny. But that this sense of class identity coincided precisely with some kind of clearly-defined boundary between middle and working classes seems to be consistently refuted by a great wealth of evidence that Mrs Thompson herself cites. For example, the definitively working-class character of Chartism is scarcely borne out by the social identity of its leaders – some of whom, notably O’Connor, Jones and O’Brien, were indisputably middle-class, whilst others like Hetherington, Harney and Lovett became so by a process of upward social mobility. Mrs Thompson claims that ‘the genuinely middle-class Chartists were very few in number’, but she nowhere makes clear what she means by ‘middle-class’, and indeed largely begs the question by setting out from the beginning with the premise that middle and working-class interests were mutually antagonistic. There is something to be said for her view that the shopkeepers, innkeepers and owners of small workshops whom she finds so abundantly among the Chartist rank and file cannot be categorised as a ‘true middle-class social and economic group’ – but it in no sense follows that they were therefore proletarian. Her unsung heroes of militant Chartism include the blacksmith, Joseph Capper, landlord of five houses; shoemaker, publisher and bookseller Joseph Lingard, ‘who wore a frock coat and had a genteel carriage’; and Lawrence Heyworth, later a successful railway promoter and the founder of a major dynasty of the haute bourgeoisie. A whole chapter is devoted to expounding the view that ‘middle-class’ commentators were inherently unsympathetic to Chartism: but it would be more accurate to say that commentators unsympathetic to Chartism are identified by Mrs Thompson as middle-class by definition. There is much to be said for Edward Thompson’s view that ‘class’ is a way of describing historical experience rather than pre-ordained structural categories. But such an approach always raises the problem of just whose experience is being described: it runs the risk of reductio ad absurdum if it is used merely to pigeonhole any set of attitudes that an author happens to approve or disapprove.

The inadequacy of such a viewpoint is implicitly criticised by Gareth Stedman Jones in Languages of Class. This is a series of essays published at various times over the past decade, now collected together with some new material. The essays are of uneven quality, but taken together they constitute an original and highly suggestive approach to the study of labour history – and indeed to social history generally. Stedman Jones records that he originally set out to assert the ontological primacy of the ‘social’ world but has gradually shifted to a position in which social life is predicated upon the prior existence of politics – and, in particular, on politics as articulated through the medium of language. Such a view leads him to argue that historians have tended to exaggerate the social, economic and cultural significance of Chartism at the expense of what Chartists themselves thought they were mainly concerned with – namely, the formulation of political grievances and the quest for political power. ‘The type of explanation which ascribes the movement to distress or the social changes accompanying the Industrial Revolution never confronts the fact that the growth and decline of Chartism was a function of its capacity to persuade its constituency to interpret their distress or discontent within the terms of its political language.’ In other words, Chartism waxed when it made sense to its would-be supporters and waned when it did not.

Such an approach is not new in coming out of modern Cambridge (though Stedman Jones acknowledges a debt to French structuralists rather than to Quentin Skinner). It is new, however, when applied to labour history and to English popular culture. Moreover, Stedman Jones argues that, if one takes the language of Chartism seriously, one is conveyed into a world in which the categories of Marxism, labourism and other forms of later class theory seem more than usually anachronistic. ‘Class’ vocabulary was integral to Chartism but it was a vocabulary rooted in Jacobinism, Old Corruption and certain forms of Lockean liberalism rather than in modern industrial society. It was a mode of political language in which ‘labour’ was seen as a species of ‘property’ rather than its antithesis; and in which manufacturers were seen as fellow victims with labour of monopolistic money power, rather than labour’s natural oppressors. Such a language captures very accurately the highly contingent and transitional nature of English society in the 1830s and 1840s, before the molten lava of the new industrial system had cooled and hardened into a more rigid framework. It makes much more sense of Chartism than simplistic categories of middle and working class.

Stedman Jones concludes his volume with an essay on the current plight of the Labour Party, in which he again criticises historians who rely too heavily on social explanations and inquire too little into language and ideology. ‘There are no simple rules of translation from the social to the political,’ he argues. Social problems and social phenomena do not constitute radical politics: on the contrary, it is radical politics which in certain circumstances transforms endemic social problems into explosive political issues. Labour politicians of all complexions have in the past accepted the social determinants of Labour’s situation far too passively and have simply ducked the ideological and normative problems of presenting a socialist case. A way out of the impasse might lie in throwing off the structural dominance of trade unionism, forging a new alliance of ‘mental’ and ‘manual’ labour and constructing a socialist politics which conducts a real debate about the ‘distribution of non-material goods’ and makes ‘a believable appeal to today’s real poor or oppressed’. This analysis, though morally admirable, seems a good deal less apposite than Stedman Jones’s account of Chartism, since there seems no reason to suppose that it is Labour’s lack of appeal to the poor and oppressed that accounts for its current failure. Moreover there is a real problem in Stedman Jones’s tendency to see politics and ‘political language’ as interchangeable. It seems to me probably true that ‘politics’ is the prime category of historical explanation: but it may also be true that certain realities of power are ineluctable, whether politically conscious people actually talk about them or not.

Autopsies on the Labour Party seem to be in fashion, perhaps prematurely in view of the fact that the patient is by no means dead. Like Stedman Jones, Ralph Miliband in Class Power and State Power makes such an autopsy the culminating piece of a collection of essays written over a period of more than a decade. The volume begins with a paper on Marx’s theory of the state, which helpfully reminds us that Marx’s ideas on state power were more untidy and open-ended than is often supposed and that ‘those who actually run the state may well belong to a class which is not the economically dominant class.’ This tone of detached academic inquiry is not, however, sustained in the subsequent pages. An irascible essay on Kolakowski ridicules the Polish philosopher’s account of Marxism as a ‘paradigm of Paradise’ and seems to view Kolakowski’s rejection of Marxism as a personal betrayal of Professor Miliband. Charles Bettelheim’s study of Leninist Russia is fiercely denounced for daring to suggest that there was any organic connection between Leninism and Stalinism. Some grandmotherly remonstrances are made to the Soviet Union for meddling in Afghanistan and Eastern Europe: but, since ‘the USSR is not subject to the logic of imperialism’, Professor Miliband believes it to be self-evident that fears of Soviet expansionism are ‘no more than reactionary ideological warfare’. Finally, the essay on the plight of the Labour Party discusses whether activists should try to transform the party or whether they should form ‘a new socialist party able to do all the work of socialist advocacy and agitation that the Labour Party’ has been ‘prevented by its leaders from doing’. Professor Miliband has long been an advocate of a separate party of the Far Left and still has very little hope that the Labour Party can be reconstituted in the way that he would like. Those who wish for the survival of the patient will devoutly hope that he is right.