History of the workers' movement in Britain, Part 2: Chartism and the 1842 general strike

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This article, contributed by a close sympathiser of the ICC, is the second part in a series on the history of the workers’ movement in Britain. The first part ‘The struggle of the working class to organise itself ’ appeared in WR 301.


The period between the Great French Revolution of 1789 and the 1848 revolutions in continental Europe saw great advances in the struggle of the proletariat in Britain to organise itself as a class conscious of its own historic goals and interests. The high point of this struggle was Chartism, later described by Lenin as “the first broad, truly mass, and politically organised proletarian revolutionary movement” (‘The Third International and its place in history’).

In this period the British workers unleashed unprecedented waves of struggles against capitalism, which more than once appeared to tremble on the brink of revolution. The high point of these struggles was 1842:

“…the year in which more energy was hurled against the authorities than in any other of the nineteenth century. More people were arrested and sentenced for offences concerned with speaking, agitating, rioting and demonstrating than in any other year, and more people were out in the streets during August 1842 than at any other time... It was the nearest thing to a general strike that the century saw.” (Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists)

This article looks at the relationship between the campaign of the Chartists for democratic rights and the workers’ struggles in the factories against the attacks of capital, focusing on the debates which took place in the workers’ movement at the time about how to win lasting reforms from capitalism, and about the most effective strategy and tactics to advance the workers’ class interests. (An article on the broader historical significance of Chartism appeared in WR 214.).

The working class builds a mass party

After the collapse of attempts to create a national union organisation in 1834, and the subsequent employers’ offensive against trade union membership, the working class turned towards the political struggle for the vote, which had been deliberately withheld by the British bourgeoisie as part of the 1832 Reform Act.

In 1838 the London Working Men’s Association, which was linked to Owenite socialism and the movement for working class education, formed a committee with radical MPs which drafted the People’s Charter of democratic demands. Chartism was officially launched at a mass meeting in Birmingham and the movement rapidly gained support among the working class with 150 affiliated societies nationwide.

From the start there was disagreement on how to obtain the Charter’s demands. The LWMA and the Chartist leadership, expressing the viewpoint of the skilled workers and artisans and their middle class supporters, argued for the use of ‘moral force’ only, while others, drawing their support from the unskilled and industrial workers of the North and Wales, criticised the Charter as too moderate and argued for the use of physical force methods to bring about change in the political system.

There were also important differences within this left or physical force wing; some like George Harney had become convinced of the need for mass action by the workers in the factories, and Thomas Benbow developed a theory of the ‘grand national holiday’, a proto-syndicalist vision of a month-long general strike in which the working class would peacefully take power, draw up a new constitution and “legislate for all mankind…” Other radicals like Feargus O’Connor and Bronterrre O’Brien opposed anything they saw as a diversion from the political struggle for the Charter.

When the first Chartist convention met in February 1839 to prepare the presentation of the Charter, there was a major debate about what strategy to adopt if parliament rejected their demands. A compromise slogan of “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must” was agreed, but against O’Connor’s opposition the left also convinced delegates to support the call for a general strike. Following the convention, Harney and Benbow toured the country holding mass meetings to win support among the industrial workers, and the Chartist movement began to take up struggles against wage cuts and the brutal New Poor Law workhouse system.

After the Chartist leaders were arrested the strike had to be called off, and when in June 1839 the Charter was finally presented to parliament, the bourgeoisie refused to even look at it. This not surprisingly threw the movement into disarray, and many Chartists now advocated force as the only means of achieving their aims. There were violent clashes leading to further arrests, the most important of which was the Newport Rising in November 1839, which was to have been the signal for a national uprising but ended in a brief, violent, and bloody battle.

Despite all these setbacks the Chartists managed to regroup their scattered forces, and at a conference in 1840 delegates voted to merge their local groups into a National Charter Association, which effectively established itself as an organised mass working class party – the first in the world. Under O’Connor’s autocratic and increasingly erratic leadership, the Association prevented a takeover by middle class radicals, with many ‘moral force’ supporters splitting away to advocate non-violent methods of advancing working class interests like education.

The working class launches mass strikes

A further petition submitted in 1842 was again rejected by parliament. The industrial workers themselves now provided the way forward, through a revival of the class struggle in response to the economic slump of 1841-2. In May strikes started spontaneously among coal miners in Staffordshire against wage cuts. From the start the workers showed a high level of self-organisation by forming a central committee to co-ordinate the strikes and sending pickets to bring out other miners. Over the summer the strike wave spread to the cotton industry in Lancashire, which now became the storm centre of the movement, and as far as Glasgow and South Wales, with mass pickets marching from town to town to bring out other workers, and in some cases knocking out boiler plugs to prevent mills from working, achieving almost complete solidarity. As the strikes went on, the workers effectively took control and factories were permitted to operate only with the permission of ‘committees of public safety’ that emerged to co-ordinate action.

At its height, the 1842 strike wave, which lasted from May through to September, involved around half a million workers and spread as far as Scotland, South Wales and Cornwall; it was “the most massive industrial action to take place in Britain - and probably anywhere - in the nineteenth century” (Mick Jenkins, The general strike of 1842). In fact in some of its key features it more closely resembled the mass strikes of 1905-6 in Russia, as described by Rosa Luxemburg, rather than a ‘classic’, trade union-organised general strike of the 19th Century; particularly in its spontaneous character, the high level of workers’ self-organisation, and the way in which the struggles around economic demands then became the ‘transmitter’ for a political struggle for the Charter’s demands, which in turn fertilised the soil for the economic struggle.

For Chartism, the strike posed point blank the question of its attitude to the class struggle. One Chartist militant vividly described the arrival by train of Chartist delegates for a conference in Manchester, ‘the city of long chimneys’, at the height of the wave, and one, upon seeing every chimney smokeless, exclaiming with an oath: Not a single mill at work! Something must come out of this and something serious too!” (The life of Thomas Cooper written by himself). The delegates, after reporting on the state of their districts, quickly called for the strike to be supported and extended with the aim of becoming an insurrection, and the executive issued a manifesto declaring in favour of a general strike as the best weapon for winning the Charter.

But divisions in the leadership also reappeared, with the majority of nationally known leaders strongly opposed to the strike; O’Connor repeated his belief that it had been provoked by the manufacturing bourgeoisie, while others like Harney opposed a general strike believing – correctly in the circumstances – that the working class was not prepared for the direct confrontation with the state that would follow. The bourgeoisie deployed troops to deal with the strikers (although some soldiers refused to fight), and several Chartist leaders, including O’Connor, Harney and Cooper, were arrested along with nearly 1,500 others. Some wage demands were met, but hopes of gaining the Charter faded. This was the zenith of Chartism as a mass movement.

Chartists, trade unionists and the general strike

Some historians of trade unionism (like Henry Pelling in A History of British Trade Unionism), have treated Chartism as a separate, unconnected phenomenon. In fact Chartism and trade unionism were intimately connected within the working class, especially at the height of the strike wave.

It’s true that after the defeats of 1834 the trade unions were extremely cautious about any involvement in political action. Some unions ruled that the discussion of politics in their meetings was out of order, and even refused to pay benefits to workers participating in political strikes. The period did see the slow but steady growth of trade union organisation at the local level, especially among skilled workers and craftsmen, but in times of slump, like 1838-42, the tendency was for a growth of interest in political action.

From the beginning Chartists attempted to organise within the trade unions, although due to the unions’ caution they were eventually forced to build separate trades associations. Chartist organisers were active in workers’ struggles against wage cuts to build support, and to link demands for shorter hours and better pay with calls for the adoption of the Charter. During the 1842 general strike, the strike leadership in Lancashire, the ‘storm centre’ of the movement, was in the hands of Chartist supporters who were also trade unionists, and among the workers themselves there was strong support for the Charter. Delegates in Manchester at the height of the wave defeated attempts to separate wage demands from the Charter, calling on workers to cease work until the People’s Charter was adopted; and the state was certainly aware of the threat posed by an alliance of Chartism and the trade unions, the then Home Secretary warning that: It is quite clear that these delegates are the directing body; they form the link between the trade unions and the Chartists, and a blow struck at this confederacy goes to the heart of the evil..”’ (John Charlton, The Chartists: The First National Workers’ Movement).

Chartism and the 1848 revolutions

After the defeat of the general strike Chartism continued its struggle for political reform but was increasingly fragmented. With the revival of trade in 1843 there was also a growth of trade union activity among industrial workers, and at a trade union conference in 1845 – the first to be held since 1834 – a new national organisation was launched to unite local societies to resist wage cuts and improve conditions, although this proved short-lived in the slump of 1846-7. Workers also directed their energies into agitation to repeal the Corn Laws and limit working hours in the textile mills. (There were debates at this time on the creation of a trade union political party, some arguing that only political action would enable the workers to gain lasting improvements from capitalism. This project was abandoned but later revived by Ernest Jones in attempts to revive the Chartist movement in the early 1850s.)

The bourgeoisie itself, thoroughly rattled by the general strike, with its nightmare vision of well-organised mass strikes led by a politically conscious working class, was now prepared to make some accommodation with the workers’ demands. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845 opened the way for rises in real wages and a massive expansion of the economy, while in 1847 an unholy alliance of landowning and ultra-radical MPs pushed through the Ten Hours Act to restrict working times. There was also some softening of the hated Poor Law. So by the time of the last mass Chartist mobilisation in 1848, the threat of another major confrontation had effectively been defused.

This last revival of Chartism coincided with a further deep trade depression, but it also needs to be seen in the context of the wave of popular insurrections which swept across continental Europe that year. Chartists in Britain followed the events of 1848 with enthusiasm, and there was rioting in the streets of London and Glasgow and pitched battles in the North, as well as a failed nationalist uprising in Ireland at this time. But the bourgeoisie’s show of force (the capital was flooded with troops and police) was effective in intimidating the workers, who had no serious plans for an insurrection.


Chartism was definitely a high point in the history of the struggle of the international working class to organise itself, as Lenin later recognised: a nationally organised mass working class party to fight for basic political rights. At the height of its influence Chartism was the workers’ movement in Britain, and its meetings witnessed historic debates for the whole proletariat on its goals as a class and the most effective means of achieving them. At the height of the 1842 general strike in particular, the debates of the Chartists and workers’ delegates in Manchester were an important moment for clarification of the relationship between the struggle in the factories for immediate demands and the longer-term struggle for political rights as a class. With hindsight of course we can see that these debates took place in historically unfavourable circumstances: as a mass movement Chartism collapsed only months before the publication of the Communist Manifesto (the first English translation appeared in Harney’s Red Republican in 1850), and almost two decades before the formation of the First International which was able to provide a programmatic and practical internationalist direction to the workers’ struggles.

As the first industrial proletariat, the British working class was a pioneer, whose first mass struggles came before the full emergence of the European proletariat onto the historical scene. Its formative struggles inevitably suffered from inexperience, isolation and the absence of a coherent political theory. But it was, as Lenin recognised over seventy years later, a vital link in the chain that led to the creation of the revolutionary world party of the proletariat.

MH, April '07.


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