George Harney and the dialectics of equality

Britain has two traditions. One is officially promoted in the media, the church and schools. The other lies hidden. One is the tradition of kings and queens, pomp and deference. The other tradition is republican, revolutionary and democratic. Hence, as we approach the establishment's well crafted celebrations of the royal jubilee, Chris Ford of the London Corresponding Committee begins our series of counterblasts with a discussion of physical-force Chartism

Are today's problems more important than studying the past? This question was posed at a meeting in August 1845 to mark the anniversary of the formation of the London Democratic Association of 1837-41. The chair of that meeting, George Julian Harney, declared: "But, it might well be asked, why commemorate the anniversary of a defunct association?" He answered his own question in this way: "For the purpose of keeping alive and promulgating the principles of which the association had been the representative" (Northern Star August 16 1845, from a speech given at the 'Democratic Supper'). Harney was secretary of the LDA during those years of bitter struggle. Born on February 17 1817 in Deptford, south London, he grew up in Bermondsey. After a period as a cabin boy, he returned to London, where in 1833 he started working as a runner for the Poor Man's Guardian, edited by Bronterre O'Brien. In this period of the famed 'war of the unstamped' Harney's distribution of this illegal paper in defiance of government restrictive taxation saw him imprisoned twice in 1836. The London Democratic Association was founded in this springtime of working class self-organisation with the rise of the Chartist movement. In 1839 it reached a membership of 3,000 - overwhelmingly working class - yet outside of the 19th century it has remained all but forgotten. Harney believed the LDA had a distinct place in our history: the "Democrats went beyond all other parties in the avowal of the extreme but righteous principles of political and social equality. They were Chartists, but they were 'Chartists and something more'" (Northern Star August 16 1845). Theodore Rothstein duly recognised them as the "most remarkable of all the organisations then existing" and Harney as "the first (one may almost call him) Bolshevik" (T Rothstein From Chartism to Labourism London 1929, p45). 'Respectables' Writing on the motives which led to the creation of the LDA, Harney stated: "It is well known to the country that no efficient organisation of the masses has been established in the metropolis, since the dissolution of the National Union of the Working Classes. True, there is in existence clubs, societies and associations professing to represent the working classes; but this is a delusion, as evidenced in the simple fact that these societies are composed of a select few of the 'respectables'" (LDA constitution, August 10 1838). The meaning of the repudiation of the "respectables" has been the subject of some speculation, according to Jennifer Bennet: "The distinction is much more likely to have been the difference between the 'honourable' and the 'dishonourable' trades'" (JA Bennet A study in London radicalism Sussex 1968, pp46-47). Whilst accounts by the police spies tend to reflect prejudiced views of the poor, there is no doubt that, when Harney talked of the "respectables" as being "men raised above the common lot of their order", he was referring to a real difference in the conditions of life, conditions which impacted on the minds of the moderate associations. As to the attitude of the "respectables", Harney concluded that they "cannot sympathise with their sufferings, and, as a matter of course are unfit, in the days of difficulty and danger, to guide the energies of the people in those bold movements which a nation must make, if that nation would be free" (LDA constitution). Their difference with the "respectables" was also in their relationship to the bourgeoisie. This period of the industrial revolution saw both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie engaged in a fight with the same enemy - the aristocracy. Until 1832 the bourgeoisie had maintained a tenuous alliance with the masses, resulting the Reform Act of that year. The Whig government then waged an unrelenting attack on the proletariat. The more well known London Working Men's Association, was of the opinion that it was necessary to work with the middle class - that is, capitalist class. As Harney outlines, the LDA contrasted sharply: "The members were Chartists "¦ but they differed from other bodies, or rather one particular body, as to the modus operandi: they repudiated all reliance on the middle class, and all connection with the shopocracy" (Northern Star August 16 1845). Spence, Babeuf and equality The LDA was distinctive in its advocacy of social revolution. In this they rejected outright pacifist - or 'moral force' - principles. It was declared in the LDA objects: "We frankly state that we consider the everlasting preaching of 'moral force', as opposed to 'physical force', to be downright humbug; for ourselves we shall be well understood in saying that we are prepared to adopt all just means within our power for achieving the salvation of our country, so far as we can affect that object. We are resolved to be no longer slaves! We are determined to free our fatherland - peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must!" Liberal historian Mark Hovel subsequently portrayed the LDA as no more than a "violent and reckless body" (M Hovel The Chartist movement Manchester 1918, p126). This reduces their belief in revolution to just inadequate tactics or reckless romanticism. In fact, the LDA had its own able leaders and thinkers. Gregory Claeys has argued with regard to the LDA of the need for a "reversal of previous appraisals of Thomas Spence's impact upon radicalism after 1820" (G Claeys Citizens and saints Cambridge 1989, p240). This is an aspect of the development of revolutionary thought in Britain that has been overlooked. Spence was one of the principal influences on the leadership of the LDA that made them "Chartists and something more". Yet this is scarcely recognised in LDA literature. Instead Paine and Babeuf are acknowledged in the initial founding documents of 1837 and 1838. In the 'The holy family' (1844) Marx outlined a trend towards a "real humanism" in the "logical basis of communism". This stemmed from Locke, through the "socialist tendencies" within French materialism, to the Babouvists, returning to the "mother country" with the emergence of "English communism", which was founded in Marx's view by Robert Owen (K Marx, F Engels Collected Works London 1975, Vol 4, pp128-132). The LDA had travelled a similar road, starting from Locke, but arriving at a far more radical conclusion than Owen. In his The real rights of man Spence challenged Locke's views on labour as property. He articulated an emancipatory alternative - a self-governing "new republic", based on a "convention of parochial delegates" (EP Thompson The making of the English working class London 1980, p177). In fact, by 1812 Spence had extended his vision of social equality to be inclusive of the industrial proletariat. LDA founder-member Allen Davenport, who was involved in the insurrectionary Cato Street conspiracy, fused Owen's cooperative ideas for industry with Spence's. Through Davenport the continued influence of Spence was ensured with the publication of a biography in 1836. Harney saw the fight for freedom as being against a state of affairs contrary to humanity in its true nature: "Kings, aristocrats and tyrants of every description "¦ are slaves in rebellion against the sovereign of the earth, which is the people, and against the legislator of the universe, which is nature" (AR Schoyen The Chartist challenge - a portrait of George Julian Harney London 1958). Whilst an avowed Spencean, Harney was also steeped in the French Revolution. When he wrote the founding Address in 1838, the influence of Babeuf is unmistakable; and it was no coincidence that this was also the year Harney studied O'Brien's translation of Buonarroti's History of Babeuf's conspiracy for equality. O'Brien's edition of Buonarroti's work saw the first introduction of the designations 'bourgeoisie' and 'proletariat', and we find its influences in the 'Constitution and objects' of the LDA. Where the Babouvistes declared the "aim of the revolution is to destroy inequality and re-establish common happiness", the LDA set as its object the "destruction of inequality and the establishment of general happiness". To the LDA the Babouviste principles were complementary to Spence's system of common ownership. The question of equality was at the heart of LDA goals, as with the Babouvistes. Coombe wrote in the London Democrat: "The undoubted answer is to obtain social and political equality. Political equality means that no one individual man is better than another one. Unless the majority of his fellow citizens define him so, "¦ every individual in any given state has a right to take part and be elected to all political proceedings "¦ Social equality means the mountains of wealth must be pulled down, and the valleys of want filled up" (London Democrat No3, April 27 1839). In this the LDA echoed the earlier radicals of the English revolution. "We are generally branded as Levellers," wrote Harney in 1838, "to which term - if it is meant the destruction of inequality - we plead guilty" (AR Schoyen ibid). 'Old corruption' The LDA was described by Rothstein as the "only organisation at the time which succeeded, to a certain extent, in properly connecting the ultimate aims of the economic emancipation of the proletariat with its political class action, thus creating the supreme synthesis which was subsequently to be embodied in the modern labour movement" (T Rothstein From Chartism to Labourism London 1929, p45). This challenges the postmodernist 'linguistic turn' thesis, which argues there was no proletarian movement in its own right. On the contrary, whilst the Chartists placed themselves within the radical tradition and their demands were not alien to earlier periods, the industrial revolution gave these demands a new character, differing from the previous fight against the powers of the aristocracy. The LDA conception of a system where "elections of the legislative assembly be taken annually", and the only "qualification required to be the confidence of the electors" was of a revolutionary democracy. The 'people's charter' realised would have established something very different from even the bureaucratic states of 20th century bourgeois democracy. Thomas Ireland summed up the LDA concept of democracy as "equality of rights, equality of condition ... We must, fellow workmen, have an end put to the present system "¦ Is there one who is willing to continue to depend upon vampires ... the aristocracy and 'employocracy' who give rise to it?" (London Democrat April 4 1839). Proletarian interests These LDA objects bore a direct relationship to the class struggle of the masses themselves and the "progress of society". For the "total unqualified repeal" of the hated Poor Law, but not in order to retrogress to the "spirit" of the old law in the reign Queen Elizabeth, but restored with "such improvements as the circumstances of the country may require" in the new conditions (LDA address ibid). They promoted an "abridgement of the hours of labour" and "the total abolition of child labour". They went further, stating: "Even in the present artificial state of society, no adult person should be required to work more than eight hours per day, especially while so many thousands are without any employment at all." In linking the creation of jobs in times of unemployment to a shorter working day, they preceded a demand of many socialists of the following century. The LDA rejected inter-class "fraternity", but pledged to support "by all available means, every rational opposition made by working men against the combination and tyranny of capitalists, whenever the latter shall seek to reduce the wages of labour, extend the hours of toil or institute proceedings against the labourer" (ibid). They championed the freedom of the press, calling for the repeal of laws "which prevent the free circulation of thought, through the medium of untaxed and honest press". In parallel they strove for a proper system of education through "public instruction, and the diffusion of sound political knowledge". Harney did not separate the benefits of public education from the nature of what was taught: the "ruling class will never grant the working class that kind of education by which they will learn their political rights" (AR Schoyen ibid p30). As we have seen, the "great object" of the LDA was the "establishment of general happiness", which they did not separate from their promotion of both "the objects of the association, and the interests of the proletarian classes generally" ('Objects', LDA constitution). The LDA was the first organisation to define itself by the term 'proletarian'. The existence of classes was considered the embodiment of an "artificial" division in a society of inequality and "social slavery" (ibid). When Robespierre was cited, it was to view class in such a light: "Commerce will be a source of public riches, and not of the monstrous opulence of a class." Harney wrote: "'Proletarians' means the multitude who, possessing no fortune or property, have only their offspring (proles) to offer as guarantee for their attachment to the state" (A Plummer Bronterre London 1971, p195). His definition was without doubt taken from O'Brien. This contrasts to Harney's friend, Karl Schapper of the German Democratic Society, who defined the proletariat as inclusive of "men of learning, the artist as well as the petty bourgeois" (H Draper Karl Marx's theory of revolution Vol 2, New York 1978, p33). The LDA, however, differed from O'Brien on the post-1832 Whig government. He believed it represented the complete ascendancy of the middle class, in contrast to the LDA, which considered that "the middle class are still not the most powerful in the state. The aristocracy are still able to maintain a system from which they alone derive the benefits "¦ They have failed in their favourite question - repeal of the Corn Laws - and now are raising household suffrage and triennial parliaments" (London Democrat April 13 1839). In many regards the LDA had learned from 1832 what it would take the rest of the European revolutionary movement to learn through the defeats of 1848. It was argued in the London Democrat that the "middle class have taken part in the struggle for the People's Charter and show no sympathy for the workers' miseries. Miseries engendered by the present anti-social system, for which they are using every means and straining every nerve to maintain" (ibid). From the experience of France the London Democrat outlined the danger of counterrevolution from within the revolution itself: "Had the working classes of France in the first French Revolution relied on themselves alone and refused cooperation of the few treacherous aristocrats ... and rejected the interference of the basest and most perfidious of men, in the Gironde faction ... their revolution would have triumphed. The failure of the revolution is to be attributed to the middle classes of France, who, desirous of overthrowing the aristocracy, in order that they might be able to appropriate the wealth and property of the aristocracy, and the church, to their own purposes joined in effecting the revolution" (ibid). The LDA did not possess the categories of 'bourgeois revolution' or 'proletarian revolution', but rather of a revolution being carried through to its absolute of "universal equality". It saw Chartism as an historically unique movement, called forth in opposition to the "different features" of this new society. In consequence the movement required goals equally unique, to be achieved by constant revolution: "Unless the People's Charter is followed by actions to equalise the conditions of all, the producing classes will still be oppressed and the country will still be involved in the most disastrous calumniates" (ibid). That the People's Charter was not an end in itself was emphasised by Coombe, who said: "I have a great objection to its being considered a panacea for all the evils under which you labour" (London Democrat June 1 1839). Freedom required a more total uprooting of these "artificial" social relations: "The disease which is now preying on your vitals is much too deeply seated to be effected by remedies of this kind. Your whole social system requires 'revolution', your commercial system requires 'revolution', and nothing short of actual convulsion will affect a cure ... Establish the People's Charter tomorrow, and the working man would have not one difficulty less to contend with" (ibid). The principles of self-emancipation outlined in the London Democrat were anticipating those of the First International: "Whatever the middle class have ever taken into hand has turned out to the people's cost to be delusive and fraudulent; therefore, as the producing classes intend to regenerate their country, they must rely on themselves and on themselves alone" (London Democrat April 13 1839). In their turn the rules of the International Working Men's Association of 1866, state: "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." What was of lasting significance with regard to the principles of the LDA was that they did not accept arguments along the lines of 'Get the Charter first and consider what we will do afterwards'. Harney posed the question: "The Charter was the means to an end, but what was the end?" (Northern Star August 16 1845). Gregory Claeys asserts that the end was not socialism and it was the utopian socialists who held hegemony of this emancipatory ideal: "No Chartist revolutionary had ever explained at length why violence alone could terminate the existing system ... These doctrines were anathema not only to the Owenites, but equally to most social Chartists" (G Claeys Citizens and saints Cambridge 1989, p296). Claeys argues that the "idea of socialism-as-revolution" came about under the influence of the 1848 continental émigrés. This wrongly presumes that Owen held such hegemony and deters us from finding what was revolutionary in 1839 other than the advocacy of violence. Readers of the Northern Star were told in October 1838 that "it has long seemed a misfortune in the discussions upon socialism that it is usually - nay, all but universally - regarded as synonymous with Owenism" (October 1838). Owen was antagonistic to Chartism, yet the idea of a cooperative system of production as an alternative to the hellish life of the industrial revolution began to break out of the Owenite sects. The Westminster Review noted: "Owenism, as those who habitually watch the progress of opinion are aware, is at present, in one form or another, the actual creed of a great portion of the working class" (M Beer A history of British socialism Vol 2, London 1920, p45). There was developing a cognition with regard to the nature of a new society in the age of capitalism. Harney considered that the charter was "a means to an end - the means being their political rights, and the end being social equality. Did he mean that they all should have their food dressed alike, their houses built in parallelograms, their coats having one uniform cut? No such thing" (Northern Star June 13 1839, commenting on his speech to the Newcastle Female Political Union). Harney's criticism of Owen's paternalistic schemes showed an insight into what is dangerous in plans for a new society in which the subject plays no part in the realisation its own freedom. A tyranny which humanity only fully experienced in the 20th century with Russian state capitalism, which called itself communism. Questions of freedom In 1839 the LDA believed that revolution was a serious possibility. The major question facing the movement concerned its next step if parliament rejected the mass petition that was the People's Charter, due to be presented in May. General Sir Charles Napier entered in his diary: "These poor devils are inclined to rise, and if they do what horrid bloodshed" (quoted in R Brown, C Daniels (eds) The Chartists - documents and debates London1984). The LDA believed that it was in the metropolis that the battle should be fought - they knew they faced difficulties and did seek solutions. The industrial north should play a key role in energising London, whether through direct intervention or leading by example. The power of ideas was equally important to rouse the "venerable democracy of London", so the question of universal suffrage was not enough: "It might only supplant one faction by another. Let the measures to follow upon universal suffrage be delineated." There is a need for a "plan of action to be laid before the people" (London Democrat June 1 1839). The LDA considered that "there are two parties in the Chartist ranks, and, what is more, they have different objects in view ... The People's Charter - 'peace, law, order, etc' - or the People's Charter - 'peacefully if we can, forcibly if we must'." After a year of agitation Coombe asked: "Has it not been generally understood that, if parliament rejected your demands this time, you were to be prepared to enforce them? I say it has been so understood ... What else has been the meaning of 'peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must?' It has no other meaning" (ibid). The Whig government was in crisis and there was a real possibility of it falling completely. Harney asked what the people should do in the event of parliament being dissolved before the charter was presented: "A dissolution of the House of Commons, before the presentation of the petition, or the House can be tested respecting the charter, is something more than possible. The people should therefore be prepared for such an event. And, should such be the case, will they quietly await another session of parliament? Will they destroy their own energies, and waste the means of victory they now possess, by stupidly 'kicking their heels' for another three or four months?" (London Democrat April 27 1839). Harney's answer was for the movement to take the initiative. The people should "take their affairs into their own hands". In the event of a queen's writ for a new election, "let the people of each county, city and borough, wherever democracy hath reared its head", set about electing delegates, the next stage being a mass mobilisation. The representatives, once elected, would be "furnished with a bodyguard of sturdy sans-culottes", organised "according to the strength of the democracy in the district" (ibid). Harney proposed that this body enforce its authority in a million-man march on London: "What army could resist a million of armed men?" He was optimistic of the outcome: "Can the result be doubtful? No; within a week not a despot's breath would pollute the air of England." As repression began to mount, he argued that the Convention, comprising of delegates elected at Chartist-organised assemblies in the localities, should move to Manchester, where they would have the support of "250,000 men who would be determined to defend their liberties". Harney expected the government to "commence the attack and they should be in a situation to meet the attack" (The Operative May 5 1839). Events moved rapidly. The government fell and the charter could not be considered by parliament. The state was starting to move. A royal proclamation was issued on May 7 for the establishment of armed associations of the upper classes. The Convention had adjourned and moved to Birmingham, where it arrived on Monday May 13. Harney addressed the 50,000 crowd: "It might be if the government began the reign of terror, the people would end it ... It might be that the people should oppose them with the musket and the pike" (AR Schoyen The Chartist challenge London 1958, p68). The same day in Newcastle, Chartists fought a pitched battle with police. Since the beginning of May they had adopted a strategy of self-limiting revolution, of mobilising just enough to intimidate the government to concede the charter. The London Democrat argued: "'Peaceably if we may, forcibly of we must' "¦ is vague - it can mean anything or nothing - The only matter worthy of the attention of the people is how, when, where force is to be acted upon." Revolutionary general strike Whilst Harney used Jacobin language, his ideas were very much those of working class mobilisation - none more so than for a revolutionary general strike: "Various plans have been suggested, such as petitioning again (!); meeting and remonstrating with parliament; abstaining from the use of excisable articles; a national holiday, etc, etc" (London Democrat May 4 1839). Harney repudiated all consideration of a second petition being submitted to parliament, and to hold simultaneous meetings in order to merely remonstrate "would be as absurd as 'petitioning again'. The tyrants would as much bid defiance to our empty threats as they at present scorn our 'humble petitions'." As regards 'consumer boycotts' as a weapon, he cited a section of workers with whom the LDA had strong support - the weavers of Spitalfields. There were "some thousands living, as the handloom weavers are, upon potatoes and oatmeal". The very idea of the impoverished entering into a boycott campaign was folly: "The short and the long of the matter is that Englishmen are miserable enough, and they know that to make themselves more wretched is not the way to be freed from their misery "¦ The only one of the plans here proposed which appears to me to be at all feasible is the national holiday" - ie, a general strike (ibid). Harney has been criticised for thinking in terms of "street fighting and barricades, of sans-culottes rather than industrial workers in factories and mines" (MI Thomas, P Holt Threats of revolution in Britain, 1789-1848 p112). Yet he was more than familiar with the new conditions and articulated the revolutionary logic of the general strike. This debate was all but forgotten by Marxists until Rosa Luxemburg's The mass strike. It was the impact of the 1905 Russian revolution which brought about a rediscovery, and one finds general similarities between Russia 1905 and England 1839. Both were societies of industrialisation, an aspiring proletariat combining with the absence of bourgeois democracy. Luxemburg wrote that the mass strike in Russia had been realised "not as a means of evading the political struggle of the working class". Rather, "in order to achieve those political rights and conditions." (Monthly Review Press Selected political writings of Rosa Luxemburg 1971, p227). Bronterre O'Brien opposed the strike in the Convention, as "many would regard it as the beginning of a revolution, and to a certain extent that was his own view". Indeed Harney considered the general strike "to mean nothing short of insurrection!" (A Plummer Bronterre London 1971, p131). Harney's argument was rooted in the conditions of the workers themselves: "I ask, how are the people to subsist during the 'sacred week?' I presume I shall be answered that the people must provide themselves with a week's subsistence beforehand. This, I assert, would be, on the part of the people, an impossibility; as this proposed holiday would be no secret, the upper and middle classes would have previously provided for themselves with a week's - aye, and more than a week's - subsistence. But not so with the people" (London Democrat May 4 1839). With wages spent, hunger would drive workers to "take by force the food from those who possessed it". If a clash did not come from repression, it would arise from necessity - "the deadly conflict between those who had and those who had not the food. And what would this be but an insurrection and civil war? I would not object to this plan, but that those who have been its loudest advocates have, at the same time, denounced the arming of the people" (ibid). Harney made a strikingly accurate prediction of events: "Supposing a conflict, such as I have imagined, to take place in some one place, the people unarmed would suffer a murderous defeat" (ibid - this is exactly what did happen, when localised outbreaks were curtailed pending the Convention's final decision. Newport rose on its own, only to be crushed). The effects of the defeat would demoralise and break the movement elsewhere, forcing a "return to their task-masters". A general strike for the charter was not like any other strike: the dynamic was of a revolutionary challenge: "Let there be no blinking the question," Harney wrote. "These are not times to be nice about mere words: the fact is, there is but one mode of obtaining the charter, and that is by insurrection!" If disaster was to be avoided, it was vital to prepare beforehand. "Let me exhort you to arm. I mean you that are yet unarmed" (ibid). He consistently argued in 1839 for a general strike inseparable from preparing for a revolutionary clash. The tragedy of 1839 Parliament rejected the charter on July 12, Lord John Russell stating that to grant it would bring about the destruction of the institutions of the state. The Convention voted to call the general strike for August 12, and then called it off to "leave the holiday to the people themselves". Harney argued not to delay, but bring forth the strike to August 5, to place them on a "collision with their tyrants. This movement could not fail, unless through the misconduct of their leaders". He attacked the retreat as being based on false reports and the fact that some leaders had "deceived the Convention, for the people were fully prepared" (ibid). He argued this was the last chance for the Convention to prove it was fit for leadership. Indeed the Hull Democratic Association wrote on July 29 that the miners would fight if need be to obtain the charter and deliver the general strike. The next day, the 'Battle of the Forth' broke out at Newcastle. Six thousand Chartists struggled with two companies of infantry, a troop of dragoons and 500 police. The government issued instructions to deal with Chartists severely and widespread arrests were made. On August 3 the Convention met again and abandoned the strike completely, instead calling for three days of public demonstrations. As Harney had forewarned, the result was the isolation of localised outbreaks and defeat. As to the prospect of success in 1839, it has been argued: "William Lovett, in particular, called for ideas and not for leaders. The revolutionaries provided neither" (MI Thomas, P Holt Threats of revolution in Britain, 1789-1848 p131). Lovett claims that Harney moderated his views in later years. Not according to Harney himself: "When I look back upon the past, when I remember the wrongs and sufferings of the working classes, far from being able to reproach myself with 'violence', I am astonished at my moderation" (Newcastle Weekly Chronicle December 2 1879). If the ideas projected in the London Democrat had gained hegemony in the movement, then the chances of success would have been far greater than has previously been appreciated.