William Morris and E. Belfort Bax

Socialism From The Root Up - Chapter 10 - Political Movements in England

During the French Revolution, especially during its earlier stages there was a corresponding movement in England. It made some noise at the time, but was merely an intellectual matter, led by a few aristocrats – eg., the Earl of Stanhope – and had no sympathy with the life of the people; it was rather a piece of aristocratic Bohemianism, a tendency to which has been seen in various times, even our own. For the rest, there certainly was in England a feeling, outside this unreal republicanism – a feeling of which Priestly the Unitarian may be looked on as a representative; this feeling was of the nature of that felt by respectable and thoughtful Radicals of later days, and was distinctly bourgeois, as the other was aristocratic.

The French Revolution naturally brought about a great reaction, not only in absolutist countries, but also in England, the country of Constitutionalism; and this reaction was much furthered and confirmed by the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbons in France. We may take as representative names of this reaction the Austrian Prince Mettternich (sic) on the Continent and Lord Castlereagh in England. The stupid and ferocious repression of the governments acting under this influence, as well as the limitless corruption by which they were supported, were met in England by a corresponding progressive agitation, which was the beginning of Radicalism. Burdett and Cartwright are representatives of the earlier days of this agitation, and later on Hunt, Carlile, Lovett, and others. William Cobbett must also be mentioned as belonging to this period – a man of great literary capacity of a kind, and with flashes of insight as to social matters far before his time, but clouded by violent irrational prejudices and prodigious egotism; withal a peasant rather than a bourgeois – a powerful disruptive agent, but incapable of association with others. This period of Radical agitation was marked by a piece of violent repression in the shape of the so-called Peterloo Massacre, where an unarmed crowd at a strictly political meeting was charged and cut down by the yeomanry, and eleven people killed outright(1).

This agitation, which was partly middle-class and partly popular, was succeeded by the Chartist movement, which was almost exclusively supported by the people, though some of the leaders – as Feargus O'Connor and Ernest Jones – belonged to the middle-class. Chartism, on the face of it, was as much a political movement as the earlier Radical one; its programme was wholly directed towards parliamentary reform; but as we have said, it was a popular movement, and its first motive power was the special temporary suffering of the people, due, as we said in our last chapter, to the disturbance of labour caused by the growth of the machine industry; and the electoral and parliamentary reforms of its programme were put forward because it was supposed that if they were carried they would affect the material condition of the people directly: at the same time, however, there is no doubt that the pressure of hunger and misery gave rise to other hopes besides the above-mentioned delusion as to reform, and ideas of Socialism were current among the Chartists though they were not openly put forward on their programme. Accordingly the class-instinct of the bourgeoisie saw the social danger that lurked under the apparently political claims of the charter, and so far from its receiving any of the middle-class sympathy which had been accorded to the Radical agitation, Chartism was looked upon as the enemy, and the bourgeois progressive movement was sedulously held aloof from it. It is worthy of note that Chartism was mainly a growth of the midland and northern counties – that is, of the great manufacturing districts – and that it never really flourished in London. In Birmingham the movement had the greatest force, and serious riots took place there while a Chartist conference was sitting in the town. The movement gave birth to a good deal of popular literature; and it must be remembered that the press was very strictly controlled by the Government. No paper was allowed to be issued without a stamp, the expense of which prevented the issue of cheap papers; and one of the incidents of the struggle was the determined opposition to this law kept up by some courageous agitators, who published unstamped papers in the teeth of the certain imprisonment that awaited them.

The Chartist movement went on vigorously enough till the insufficiency both of its aims and of knowledge as to how to carry them out found out the weak places in it. The immediate external cause of its wreck was the unfortunate schism that arose between the supporters of moral force and physical force in the body itself. The fantastic folly of supposing that there can be any 'moral force' in matters political which does not rest on the resolution of a party to attain their end by the use of what 'physical force' they may have, if it should become necessary to use it, does not call for much comment here; although some thoughtless persons may even at present think that they believe such a 'moral force' exists. On the other hand, it is clear to us now that a Chartist revolt had no chance of success at that time, and but for self-deception would have been clear to both leaders and rank and file of the party then. It may here be mentioned that the trump-card which the Chartists were always thinking of playing was the organization of an universal strike, under the picturesque title of the Holy Month. In considering the enormous difficulties, or rather impossibilities, of this enterprise, we should remember that its supporters understood that the beginnings of it would be at once repressed forcibly, and that it would lead directly to civil war.

The truth is that there were two distinct groups in the party, one of which went about as far as our ultra-Radicals of the present day; and another which was at heart Socialist, only deficient in knowledge, and consequently without definite principles on which to base action; and these two groups pretty much corresponded to the division between the supporters of moral and physical force.

From 1842, when the schism came to a head, Chartism began to die out. Its decay, however, was far more due to the change that was coming over the economical state of affairs than even to its incomplete development of principle and ill-considered tactics. Things were settling down from the dislocation caused by the rise of the great industries. The workers shared in the added wealth brought about by enormous expansion of trade, although in an absurdly small proportion to the share of the middle-classes; but those classes tended ever to become more numerous and more contented. The trades' unions began to be powerful, and improved the prospects of the skilled workmen. So-called co-operation began to flourish: it was really an improved form of joint-stockery, which could be engaged in by the workmen, but was and is fondly thought by some to be if not a shoeing-horn to Socialism at least a substitute for it; indeed Chartism itself at this time became involved in a kind of half co-operative half peasant-proprietorship land scheme, which of course proved utterly abortive.

As this improvement in the condition of the working-classes weakened that part of the life of Chartism which depended on mere hunger desperation, so the growing political power in the middle-classes and the weakening of the mere Tory reaction swallowed up the political part of its life.

Chartism, therefore, flickered out in the years that followed 1842, but its last act was the celebrated abortive threat at revolt which took place in April 1848. And it must be said that there was something appropriate in such a last act. For this demonstration was distinctly caused by sympathy with the attacks on absolutism then taking place on the Continent, and Chartism was always on one side of it a part of the movement which was going on all over Europe, and was directed against the reaction which followed on the French Revolution, and which was represented by the 'Holy Alliance' of the absolutist sovereigns against both bourgeoisie and the people.

On the fall of Chartism, the Liberal Party, a nondescript and flaccid creation of bourgeois supremacy, a party without principles or definition, but a thoroughly adequate expression of English middle-class hypocrisy, cowardice, and short-sightedness, engrossed the whole of the political progressive movement in England, and dragged the working-classes along with it, blind as they were to their own interests and the solidarity of labour. This party has shown little or no sympathy for the progressive movement on the Continent, unless when they deemed it connected with their anti-Catholic prejudice. It saw no danger in the Cæsarism which took the place of the corrupt sham Constitutionalism of Louis Philippe as the head of the police and stock-jobbing régime, which dominated France in the interests of the bourgeoisie, and hailed Louis Napoleon with delight as the champion of law and order.

Any one, even a thoughtful person, might have been excused for thinking in the years that followed on 1848 that the party of the people was at last extinguished in England, and that the class-struggle had died out and given place to the peaceable rule of the middle-classes, scarcely disturbed by occasional bickerings carried on in a lawful manner between the two parties to that false free-contract, which is the lying foundation on which Commercial Society rests. But, as we shall show in a future chapter, under all this, Socialism was making great strides and developing a new and scientific phase, which at last resulted in the establishment of the International Association, whose aim was to unite the workers of the world in an organization which should consciously oppose itself to the domination of middle-class capitalism. The International was inaugurated in England in 1864, at a meeting held at St Martin's Hall, London, and at which Professor Beesly took the chair. It made considerable progress among the Trades' Unions, and made a great impression (beyond indeed what its genuine strength warranted) on the arbitrary Governments of Europe. It culminated in the Socialistic influence it had, in the Commune of Paris, of which we shall treat in a separate chapter. The International did not long out-live the Commune, and once more for several years all proletarian influence was dormant in England, except for what activity was possible among the foreign refugees living there, with whom some few of the English working-men had relations. From this connection sprang, however, a new movement, which we must barely mention, though it cannot yet be considered a matter of history. In 1881, an attempt was made to federate the various Radical Clubs into a body, with a programme which, though for the most part merely Radical, had an infusion of Socialism in it, and which took the name of the Democratic Federation. The Radical Clubs, however, that had joined soon seceded, mostly from disagreement with the revolutionary attitude taken by the Federation on the Irish question. In 1883, the programme became more definitely Socialistic, and the next year the title was changed to that of the Social Democratic Federation; but in the last days of 1884 differences of opinion which had been developing for some time, chiefly centering on the questions of Parliamentary Opportunism and Nationalism, ended in a secession which founded the Socialist League as a definite Revolutionary Socialist body early in 1885.

At the present time the Socialist bodies, though relatively small, tend to attract various elements to them; the discontent of the workmen with an outlook of ever increasing gloom; that also of the Ultra-Radicals unable to make any real impression on the dense mass of mingled Conservatism and Whiggery, which really governs the country. The aspirations of thoughtful people who have studied the works of the great Socialist thinkers; the permeation of Socialist feeling from its centres on the Continent; and lastly and chiefly the steady march of events towards a new state of Society, which is making itself felt even amongst those who are unconscious of the advance of Socialism, or hostile to it – all these causes combining together, are forcing even England, the stronghold of middle-class domination, to pay attention to the subject, and will certainly before long form a new and powerful Party of the People, whose outlook will be far more hopeful than that of any of those we have told of; since its aim will no longer be partial or one-sided, but will be the realization of a new Society with new politics, ethics, and economics, in short, the transformation of civilization into Socialism.

1 The readers of Commonweal will find an article on this subject in the first number (Feb. 1885), by our comrade E. T. Craig, who was in Manchester at the time, though not an eye-witness. It is interesting to note that the scene of the massacre, St Peter's Fields, is now a mass of streets in the very centre of the city of Manchester.back

Commonweal, Volume 2, Number 33, 28 August 1886, pp. 170-171