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Response to Review no. 580

What perspective should historians of British labour history have on the two decades after 1848, the year of revolutions in Europe that also saw a crucial defeat for the Chartists in Britain? These are unfashionable decades, historically speaking, but I would argue, and I think David Renton’s review of Chartism After 1848 broadly agrees, that they are worth celebrating just a little bit, even as we also grasp the severity of the defeat they represented for the workers’ movement.

If I have one overarching note of criticism of David Renton’s review of Chartism After 1848, it is that it is simply not critical enough of the book. Of course one does not seek, or find useful, reviews that might argue that it would be much better if the author was not interested in the issue of working-class political organization both historically and in the present, or if the book stopped trying to pretend that the Chartists could in any way be associated with the left-wing movements that followed in later decades. As Renton demonstrates, I am hardly caricaturing some of the poses that have been struck by authors in the field of Chartist studies in recent years. However, Renton’s review comes from the left and is to be welcomed on that basis.

As the author, I am very conscious of what the book does not contain. Quite specifically it does not contain chapters on issues around the Preston lock-out of 1853–4, the Crimean War and Sunday Trading riots of the mid-1850s, and the Co-operative movement after 1848 because that would have made the book far too long. If longer books were prudent in the age of the sound-bite, all would have strengthened the argument in the book as published. As it is, they were excised even from the PhD thesis which formed part of the basis of the book. I should perhaps underline that the book is far from simply a regurgitation of my thesis. It is substantially reworked and revised, to which enormous thanks must go to the overall editor of the important Merlin Chartist Studies series Professor Owen Ashton.

However, the book is also deficient in terms of economic analysis—which is only hinted at. Work on drawing the links between wage rates, the cost of living, ideas held by workers, and much else around these points in the period after 1848 is still needed. Likewise the strategies of the ruling class in this period remain, at best, a sub-plot in the book. There is a lot to be said for John Saville’s claim that Marxists should write ‘total history’ drawing together the interactions of capital and labour, but it is easier said than done.

There are a number of underlying issues in labour history and working class politics addressed in the book. Perhaps the key one is the experience of defeat; what happens to a working-class movement like the Chartists after a serious reversal such as that of 1848? The book also focuses on, as the sub-text to the title suggests, evidence of radical schools and education in the 1850s, and draws the conclusion that this emphasis on learning and knowledge was one direction taken by some Chartists. The concept of deflection in political process is taken from the Marxist theorist Tony Cliff to try to explain why it is that, far from simply disappearing after 1848, Chartism changed direction and continued for another ten years or more as a national movement.

The book also touches on something Renton does not deal with in his review; the question of working-class leadership and, in particular, the role of the most significant leader of post-1848 Chartism, Ernest Jones. It argues against a trend, perhaps best represented by Miles Taylor but certainly present elsewhere in Chartist historiography, that trying to understand Jones as a labour leader in the context of the example set by someone like Tony Blair may be entertaining but is not a useful historical exercise. Jones certainly did create an image of himself as leader that was not strictly in accordance with his actual personal history or beliefs, but that is simply to describe the art of political leadership, not to indicate that Jones was a practiced liar.

Renton focuses, however, on the important question of the relationship between language, class, and political organization, which, although not quite in that formulation, was made such a central feature of Chartist Studies in the late-twentieth century by Gareth Stedman Jones.

Renton begins his review by situating it in a discussion about class formation, how the working-class is formed as a class, and how this has been seen as historians. He suggests that a view that the working-class is growing ever greater and more influential as the years roll on is a heroic narrative that was rather rudely interrupted by the Conservative election victories in 1979 and after. That may well have been true for those who held the simplistic view that if the left simply held on long enough the social weight of the working-class would deliver some form of socialist society. However, it is really a caricature of all but the crudest and most mechanical versions of Marxism that were on display in the second half of the twentieth century.

Renton is right to underline that, whatever the basis in fact for this caricature, revisionist social historians such as Patrick Joyce did indeed take it as a fact, and proceeded to construct histories of the Victorian period into which the concept of a working class did not intrude in any significant way. Renton is right too to emphasize these points because they are central to the kind of historical ideas against which the book is written. Moreover, one might note that the idea that the working-class is growing ever greater in numbers and influence, while not hugely meaningful in current British society, has considerable importance when looking at trends world-wide.

Renton sees the process of working-class formation as contingent on a process of struggle, and that is very much the idea that informs Chartism after 1848. In particular, given that the final chapters of the book consider the 1860s, a decade which has not received a great deal of attention from British labour historians, I would agree with Renton that, ‘decades that seemed quiet to them may come back to us pregnant with possibility’.

The review notes that Chartism After 1848 focuses on ‘the significance of London over Yorkshire and Lancashire’, which were the primary geographical subject of E. P Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class. Partly this reflects the weight of archival material available in terms of where radical schools were to be found, but this underlines an important point about the importance of London in post-1848 radical working-class politics. London, the ‘great wen’, was an increasingly populous urban area drawing in many thousands of ‘comers and goers’ as Raphael Samuel has labelled the transient workforce of the capital. It was sheer numbers that provided the material basis for radical schools and meeting places in the capital that were more difficult to sustain elsewhere, and meant that London was the place where, for example, national papers of the left, whether The Reasoner or The People’s Paper made their home. It was a rapid but significant change. The Northern Star had started out in 1837 being produced in Leeds, then a far more important centre of working-class politics than London. We should heed the point well made by E. P. Thompson in his Homage to Tom Maguire, about labour politics in the late-nineteenth century. Namely that it is a mistake to believe that the capital and head offices of trade unions and radical movements are necessarily the source of important new developments. Rather the ‘provinces’ on the basis of combined and uneven development may lead the capital, as they did with the birth of the Independent Labour Party. However, as recent work by Antony Taylor has suggested, in fact in the 1850s independent working-class politics did survive and prosper better in London than anywhere else in the country and so the geographical bias of the book is appropriate.

Renton ponders whether after 1848 former Chartists had to adapt to practices that ‘gave less challenge to the dominance of the privileged’, and correctly judges that the answer provided by the book is ‘up to a point’. In writing the rules for the International Working Men’s Association in 1864, Marx had noted that he had had to tone down his language somewhat, and that it would be some while before the more robust phraseology used in the 1840s would again be in general currency. The period after 1848 was one of defeat and rebirth and that did mean a lower level of confidence, in general, in those who would challenge the basis of class society.

As Renton notes in the conclusion to his review, ‘the moral of the story is in fact upbeat—class decay and renewal were happening at precisely the same moment’. This is an important point. Certainly during the 1850s and more so in the 1860s working-class activists had to make some concessions to the newly formed Liberal Party [from 1858] which hegemonized much, if not all, of the advanced sections of working-class political thought. For example, when Ernest Jones stood for Parliament in Manchester at the end of the 1860s it was as a Liberal. However, as the book shows, this process was not without enormous stresses and strains, including opposition from another Liberal, Mitchell Henry. The process of the partial assimilation of working-class politics into the Liberal Party was one of struggle on both sides and it was one that was never entirely completed. It remained a work in progress until the aftermath of the 1906 General Election, and the Lib-Lab pact, effectively destroyed it.

Beyond this, the book attempts to revisit was what was termed by the 1960s New Left as ‘Labourism’—a grey dull and distinctly non-revolutionary current in the labour movement which dates from the defeat of Chartism—and suggest that it was not all bad. Certainly it was not about to challenge capitalism, but from trade unions to co-operatives and much else it built massive bulwarks of working class organization against the exploitative rhythms of capital, and that was important to working class people who had to survive in that system, even if they hoped for a better one.