The National Charter Association and its legacy, 180 years on

In July 1840 a convention of twenty-three delegates met at the Griffin Inn, Great Ancoats Street, Manchester. Elected by Chartist bodies from across Britain, their purpose was to put together a plan for reorganising the movement following a year of repression, in which much of their leadership had been imprisoned, transported, or forced into exile. On July 20 the delegates agreed a plan for a permanent organisation of all the Chartist groups across the country within ‘one Society to be Called “The National Charter Association of Great Britain”’. With this they made history: the formation of the first working-class, mass-member political party in the world.

The NCA’s core objective was the People’s Charter – the ‘six points’ of reform that would secure universal male suffrage and protect the franchise from corruption. To these ends the party possessed a nationally-elected, paid Executive council, while NCA localities were organised on the town level. Its rules and policy was set democratically at regular conferences, and it was funded solely by subscriptions from its membership. Although its national nature made it an illegal organisation, the NCA organised openly and managed to attain 50,000 members by 1842, in essence establishing the precedent for legal political parties in Britain. It was also notably inclusive: women were admitted on the same terms as men, and in 1842 William Cuffay, the son of a slave from St. Kitts, was elected to its national Executive.

The NCA’s constitution was also remarkable for calling for ‘Chartist candidates at every election that may hereafter take place’. Consequently during the 1841 General Election the NCA stood or endorsed candidates in dozens of constituencies across the country, making it the first contested by a nationally organised working-class party in history. Despite the lack of working-class electors Chartist candidates often symbolically won the ‘show of hands’ of non-electors that preceded formal polling. Nevertheless, the NCA managed to recruit the two MPs for Finsbury, Thomas Slingsby Duncombe and Thomas Wakley, who were joined as MPs in 1847 by one of Chartism’s chief leaders, Feargus O’Connor, forming what Friedrich Engels celebrated as the first ‘People’s Party’ in Parliament. At its 1851 conference the NCA made history again by becoming Britain’s first social democratic party, adopting a programme of nationalisation of land and capital. Chartism was, however, declining since another wave of repression in 1848, and a split in 1850 by a small group of moderates to form the short-lived National Chartist League destroyed the NCA’s presence in Manchester, its former heartland. The party fought its last General Election in 1852, and it continued as a rump until 1858.

Despite its historical significance the NCA has largely been forgotten by the British left. It is nevertheless instructive for considering the divergent paths taken by the working class between the 1850s and 1900, when the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) became the first successful effort to form an independent working-class faction within Parliament since the NCA. The formation of the Reform League in 1865 appeared at first to resume the NCA’s mantle by combining the demand for universal suffrage with social reformism. Instead, the League’s acceptance of limited plans for Parliamentary reform and then explicit alliance with the Liberal Party in the 1868 General Election signalled a significant retreat from the Chartist position of absolute political independence. By the 1880s ‘Lib-Lab’ candidates backed by trade unions but accepting the Liberal whip became a growing faction in Parliament, but recent studies have emphasised how workers within this alliance felt growing frustration with the Liberal Party, indicating deeper roots to the LRC than has at times been assumed.

The only explicit comparative study of the shift from the NCA to the LRC remains From Chartism to Labourism, published in 1929 by Theodore Rothstein, a Bolshevik who during two decades of exile in Britain had been a member of the Marxist Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and its successors, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and British Socialist Party (BSP). Consisting of essays written between 1905 and the 1920s for Russian and German workers, From Chartism to Labourism was one of the first histories of either Chartism or the Labour Party. Rothstein’s economic thesis posited that after 1850 rising wages, and then after 1875 falling prices, served to undercut working-class militancy. Alongside this he made a more sophisticated political and cultural argument, in which after 1848 state violence declined and capitalists who supported the Liberal Party made concerted efforts to conciliate the labour movement to prevent a Chartist revival. Falling prices encouraged British workers to identify as consumers rather than producers, generating strong support for the core Liberal policies of free trade and low taxation. Together, this encouraged the rise of labour leaders who emphasised cross-class co-operation to secure modest, easily winnable gains, which became the foundational purpose of the Labour Party. The argument was crude in places, such as Rothstein’s disinterest in the new unionism of the 1880s or the complex intellectual origins of the LRC. Nevertheless, his central contention that Chartism was fiercely independent and increasingly sought to take control of the state to reorder society, whilst labourism emphasised cross-party, cross-class co-operation to ameliorate the conditions of the workers, remains valid.

This implied that the successor of Chartism was the SDF, and therefore the Communist Party of Great Britain, of which the BSP was a founder. This is evident from Rothstein’s discussion of the SDP’s role at the conference that birthed the LRC, when their argument that ‘there could be no truly independent Labour Party….as long as they had no independent and clear-cut political line’ of expropriating the means of production, distribution, and exchange was rebuffed, causing them to leave. There was merit to this implication. Several studies have shown the passage of the followers of the Chartist leader and pre-Marxist anti-capitalist theorist Bronterre O’Brien into the SDF, and the ex-Chartist John Sketchley’s 1879 Principles of Social Democracy was an important formative influence on a new generation of social democrats. These links have been subject to far less study, however, than those Chartists who in later life became Liberals.

The question of the Chartist succession is therefore illustrative of two polar traditions in the working-class left in Britain: one was a radical aspiration for a direct democracy and widespread, permanent wealth redistribution, while the other sought to adhere to a ‘realistic’ alliance between organised labour and progressive liberalism. In many respects the recent history of the Labour Party has been a conflict between these two traditions, with the movement that developed since the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 far more of a clear continuation of Chartism than the Party it was a component of. But amid the increasingly cataclysmic crises of our present century, the 180th anniversary of the foundation of the NCA raises another question: is it time again to turn to the Chartist tradition of a strictly independent, working-class movement for substantive political and economic change?



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