Chartism was a movement established and controlled by working men in 1836 to achieve parliamentary democracy as a step towards social and economic reform. The Charter made six political demands but the organisation was Utopian and naive in the belief that constitutional reform would automatically provide socio-economic betterment.
Perhaps Chartism was a matter of feeling. It was an emotional reaction against a changing economy and society, which was unjust and bewildering to the working man - a cry for help. It expressed the resentment of conditions and movements which had promised so much, but which had failed the working man.
Chartism was a product of industrialisation, but was also part of the radical tradition, which dated back to the mid-eighteenth century. Chartism represented the fundamental belief that economic exploitation and political subservience could be righted by parliamentary means.
Great social, political and economic changes took place between 1830 and 1850, speeded up by railways. The balance shifted from old 18th century values to new commercial values; agriculture declined as industry flourished. It was an age of paradox, with old and new values in equipoise, to determine the 'Condition of England Question'. Even contemporaries were confused.
Chartism was a paradox because it reflected this society. It attracted its support from all those with a sense of grievance — whatever the grievance was about — and took in old-fashioned outlooks/philosophies and fears of craftsmen as well as new outlooks, fears of factory workers and the growth of Socialism.
Chartism's strength peaked in times of depression and unemployment, i.e. 1838-39; 1842; 1847-48. To a great extent, Chartism was a "knife and fork, a bread and cheese question" as Joseph Rayner Stephens said on 24 September 1838 when he spoke at Kersal Moor, Manchester, in favour of universal suffrage. Chartism was born under the Whigs and ended under Peel's economic reforms, although the Chartist leaders (certainly) and members (perhaps) were politically motivated.
Chartism was the first specifically working-class movement, although 'Chartism' and 'working class' are both terms that cover regional variations and all types of working men: artisans to factory workers. They also cover diversity within industries, setting workers against workers: cotton/wool; factory/hand workers. Chartism was strongest in
- centres of old decaying industries e.g. textiles and stocking-making
- single industry towns like Stockport.
It was weak in agricultural areas and the south-west. Each area had its own grievances, leaders and priorities. National unity was more apparent than real. Chartism's strength was derived from its ability to encompass the dissatisfactions and discontents of most working-class people. This encouraged every person or group with a grievance/mission/political demand to join the Chartists.
The debate on the nature of Chartism
- the sympathetic saw it as a simple cry of distress
- suspicious conservatives saw it as a disguise for pillage
- sophisticated conservatives saw it as a socialist restructuring of society
- classical conservatives saw it as an attack on property, and thus on civilized society, so it had to be resisted in the best interests of all
- working men hoped for prosperity, political rights and libertarian reforms - a range of aspirations from old-style radical to new-style socialism
- above all, Chartism was seen as a protest against hunger and physical suffering. Bad government was thought to be its cause and universal suffrage, as embodied in the Charter, to be its remedy
Chartism was born of hunger, despair, desperation and failure and had a number of causes.
The Chartist movement failed because it tore itself apart:
London - philosophical radicals; craftsmen; skilled artisans.
Leaders: constitutional reformers, moderates, like Lovett and Place.
Manchester - cotton factory workers.
Leaders: violent proto-Marxist revolutionaries. Some were embryonic socialists
Yorkshire - domestic woollen workers.
Leaders: physical force men, especially Feargus O'Connor
Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire: Luddite types.
Social and economic reform wanted by the led. Little political motivation
Chartism had no money because it was born of poverty. Self-destruction was almost in-built. The "Charter" was the only bond of unity to several distinct movements — a standard to rally round. There were almost as many types of Chartism as there were Chartists and this was a factor against its immediate success although the movement was significant in terms of the development of working class movements.
Last modified 26 March 2002 [MB]