Remembering Chartist Harney

Some 20 people gathered in Greenwich on February 16 to commemorate the life and work of the leading Chartist, George Harney, at a meeting sponsored by the Republican Communist Network and financially aided by the Thomas Paine Society. After comradely greetings from the RCN (Scotland) were read out, Terry Liddle opened the meeting by saying he would not be calling for a minute's silence for Margaret Windsor, a bigot who enjoyed vast, unearned wealth and who undermined her own health. As Dave Nellist was regrettably unable to attend, the first speech was given by Chris Ford, a PCS branch secretary and editor of Hobgoblin. He described some of the historical background to Harney's life and work. He described the struggles around the unstamped press during which Harney was imprisoned. He retold the story of the London Democratic Association, which was the extreme left, physical-force wing of Chartism. It opposed any alliance with the middle class and radical MPs, being a strictly independent working class organisation. The LDA often met in pubs, including the aptly named Tree of Liberty in east London. It aimed to end alcohol abuse by crushing the immorality of the ruling class. At its meetings the literate would read aloud the radical press for those unable to read. The LDA opposed the respectable, compromising wing of Chartism and wanted to overthrow the ruling class. Comrade Ford detailed some of the influences on Harney such as Thomas Spence and Marat. He was of the opinion that if in 1839 the Chartists had taken Harney's advice there would have been a successful revolution. Bob Morell, secretary of the Thomas Paine Society, said he had first heard of Harney from Jimmy Rowse, a Nottingham republican. It was important to realise that some Chartists called themselves ultra-Tories. He also drew attention to Harney's support amongst women, who presented him with a silk handkerchief in appreciation of his support for their rights. Comrade Morell detailed the relationship between Harney and George Holyoake, who had been arrested in Cheltenham for blasphemy. The local press called socialism "devilism". Harney, he said, like Paine was almost forgotten, but it was important that we celebrate the contribution of such pioneers. Danny Hammill (CPGB) drew attention to Harney's love of Byron's poetry and his thirst for knowledge. The comrade recalled that Harney claimed to have become a radical at the age of four after attending Queen Carolina's funeral in 1821! He discussed Harney's friendship with Marx and Engels and berated today's left for failing to understand the centrality of the struggle for democracy and republicanism to the present struggle for socialism. It was a shame there was very little on Harney in the local library and we should campaign for a plaque to be placed on his birthplace in Deptford. Steve Freeman (Republican Communist Network) said that republicanism should unite the left and help it overcome sectarianism. Since 1977 there had been a sea change with mass apathy over the jubilee and politicians not knowing how to sell it. The monarchy had reinvented itself as the symbol of the post-war welfare state in which everyone knew their place. Thatcher had destroyed welfarism and had robbed the monarchy of this role. If everything and everyone can be privatised and means-tested why not privatise the Windsors? There was growing support for abolition of the monarchy, particularly amongst the young. Our task was to transform negative anti-monarchism into active republicanism, struggling against a farcical Commons, a corrupt monarchy and Lords, a gerrymandered electoral system and the oppression of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish. We should go forward in the spirit of Harney and Paine, he said. A speaker from the floor drew attention to the contradiction between the promise of liberty in the US constitution and the retention of slavery. Socialists faced a problem - they wanted to be part of the state while upholding the rights of individuals. Another speaker said what was wanted was proletarian dictatorship. In reply, comrade Hammill outlined the Marxist theory of the state. Comrade Ford said that communism was the negation of private property and we need to go beyond that to a new humanism. Comrades' attention was drawn to Levellers Day in Burford in May. A coach from London was being organised. Those interested should call 020 8850 4187. Terry Liddle