Monday, 23 May 2011

Mass movements for democracy: a lesson from history

This is from a superb new feature article on the Chartists by John Westmoreland:

'When the Charter was launched in London, at the Crown and Anchor Inn in May 1837, it had politics and political representation at its centre. The Charter contained demands, rather than aspirations, that had the backing of middle class intellectuals and working class militants. The Charter contained six points: manhood suffrage; the ballot; the abolition of property qualifications for MPs; payment of MPs; equal electoral districts; and annual elections.

This may seem small beer today but for the ruling class it represented a major assault on their life of unaccountable and predatory privilege. As Frederick Engels pointed out, the political demands served the purpose of social transformation. Parliament would serve the people because its representatives would be from the people and it would pass laws that would apply to everyone and not be used to oppress the poor and downtrodden.

The launching of the Charter threw up the question of how the demands should be obtained. This was a divisive issue right from the start. Historians of Chartism divide the movement into two parts: moral force Chartists such as William Lovett, and physical force Chartists such as Feargus O’Connor. It is a mistake to make the division too sharply because any mass movement is made up of different elements who see the struggle and the possibilities of resolving it in different ways. People who combine together and fight for their rights change themselves in the process, and that was what happened with Chartism.

In London, Lovett sought to persuade middle class sympathisers of the Charter’s merit, but in the industrial towns the working classes proved to be ready to fight a more revolutionary battle. Between 1838 and the main uprising of the Chartists in 1842 a huge wave of revolutionary energy swept across the land. The Charter was endorsed at mass meetings called conventions at the great industrial centres. The word convention had a distinct meaning at the time – it was associated with the French revolution – and it really referred to a peoples’ parliament. In other words, if the talking shop in Westminster was useless, then the people themselves could pass their own legislation.

The petitions they organised represented their political will. In Glasgow (May 1838) the Charter was endorsed on Glasgow Green after a procession of 200,000, with a sea of banners, 73 trade unions, and 43 bands. There were similar rallies on Town Moor in Newcastle, Kersal Moor Manchester and Peep Green in West Yorkshire.'


No comments:

Post a Comment