Chartist heritage

Ian Bullock on the implications of Chartism

It does seem appropriate for a journal called Chartist to occasionally consider what might be the implications of its title. So what can we learn from the Chartist movement? There were of course ‘physical force’ Chartists – and not only in the Newport Rising of 1839 – but most Chartists, especially from the later 1840s, wished to pursue their goals non-violently, if loudly and vociferously.

The Chartist heritage can be seen as twofold: a commitment to politics and a commitment – eventually – to democracy. It’s important to distinguish between these two. I don’t need to rehearse the famous ‘six points‘ here but had, by some miracle, all six of them been immediately implemented the result would not have been democracy. Clearly, there is much, much more to democracy than simply the right to vote. But it is rather crucial. There were advocates of universal suffrage in the movement and many women Chartists but the demand was for ‘manhood suffrage’ – votes for males of 21 or over.

Adult suffrage in Britain was achieved only in 1928 and even then some anomalies remained. So, to begin with, what the Chartists were committed to (with the exceptions already noted) was political action – that is, trying to achieve their aims by political means in an environment where campaigning for radical change was possible, though never easy. There was no level playing field, but political activity did take place – with a struggle. No one, either among the Chartists or later suffrage campaigners, saw achieving their demands for the vote in isolation. Rather their assumption was that political equality was the key factor for securing every other kind of equality – a view I think we all accept.

The Chartists certainly have had a significant influence on every later socialist and radical political movement in Britain. None more so than the first organisation of the ‘socialist revival’ – the Social-Democratic Federation (SDF) which began as the Democratic Federation, itself a sort of Chartist revival. The early SDF did indeed contain a number of ‘old Chartists’. The hyphen in Social-Democratic and Social-Democracy is vital. It stood for the symbiotic relationship between political and socio-economic advance. The first was an essential precondition of the second.

In his second volume of reminiscences published a couple of years before World War I, Henry Hyndman, the main founder of the SDF, refers to ‘the modern Socialist, or renewed Chartist, movement, set on foot by the Democratic Federation in 1881’. The first plank of the DF programme was ‘adult suffrage’ – certainly an advance on the old ‘six points’ demand but clearly of the same heritage. Soon the SDF programme would begin with a whole series of ‘immediate demands’ for the ‘democratisation of government machinery’, proportional representation and the initiative (a feature of direct democracy where a set number of electors could initiate a referendum).

It wasn’t only Hyndman who saw the SDF, and socialism generally, as descended from the Chartists. In 1903 for example – and not for the first or last time – the SDF paper Justice claimed they were Chartism’s ‘legitimate heirs and successors’. Its Fabian adversaries, above all George Bernard Shaw, didn’t dispute this – but saw it as something to be sneered at. In Fabian Essays of 1889 Shaw referred to the SDF as ‘Chartism risen from the dead.’ He was still going on in the same vein when the Social-Democrats had the audacity to oppose – on democratic grounds – what became the Education Act of 1902, which the Fabians had promoted in cahoots with Balfour’s Tory government. Shaw dismissed such opposition as ‘old-fashioned Chartist Radicalism.’

Well we know where Shaw – and some of the other Fabians, notably the Webbs – ended up. But let’s not go there. Instead let us ask ourselves what are the implications of keeping faith with our Chartist forebears. Clearly we should always defend democracy however imperfect its form. It is as we all know now under attack from so many essentially right-wing directions. But we should also be looking for ways to deepen democracy, to make it more real, and assist it in pursuit of greater equality of every kind. We won’t always agree about which way to do this, but that debate is itself part of the democratic process.


  1. I love the idea of annual general elections, and hope someday soon all nations across the world will adopt this reform. However imho Proportional Representation is anathema to good democratic processes (methinks the two party system of a government and an alternative government that occasionally change seats is the best process)

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