Friday, June 30, 2006

Mark O'Brien - Perish the Privileged Orders: A Socialist History of the Chartist Movement

Life as a worker in the early part of the 19th century in the UK was short and horrible. Those working in the new industries of Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and similar cities would rarely live past the age of 20, and many of those years would be spent working for over 12 hours a day, in conditions of near slavery, for a pittance of pay.

Across the channel, the French had raised the banner of Liberty and Freedom, and that combined with the lack of control over their own lives, mixed together with the appalling living conditions led to the worlds first mass working class movement - Chartism.

Chartism was more than a Trade Union, though it's often painted as such. The "Charter" it drew up, was one of policial demands, rather than simple economic desires. But the hundreds of thousands of working men and women who flocked to it's banners also believed in a world where the rich didn't live parasitically of the backs of those labouring in their factories.

So great was the fear amongst the rulers, that the Chartists faced the gun fire of massed troops and Middle Class militia, drummed up to oppose those who demanded the right to vote..

Their greatest day though, when up to 500,000 marched to present the third Charter to parliament, was also the start of their decline. Not willing to confront capitalism head on, the Chartist leaders backed down, and the ruling class had a breathing space to subvert the movement by other means - offering small reforms and tit-bits here and there.

The radical history of the Chartists, their support for Irish liberation and opposition to slavery and colonialism is hidden from history by those who would paint it simply as the for-runner of the modern Trade Union movement. But the real history - that of ordinary men and women, prepared to face the steel of British troops, who read, debated and organised - is rescued for us here, in this wonderful short introduction by Mark O'Brien.

I'm told it's out of print, but you can probably find it in a library, or on the shelves of some old comrade, or even at the bottom of a bookstall at a socialist meeting - after all, I did.

Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones, Chartist

We plow and sow, we're so very, very low,
That we delve in the dirty clay;
Till we bless the plain with the golden grain,
And the vale with the fragrant hay.
Our place we know, we're so very, very low,
'Tis down at the landlord's feet;
We're not too low the grain to grow,
But too low the bread to eat.

Down, down we go, we're so very, very ow,
To the hell of the deep-sunk mines;
But we gather the proudest gems that glow,
When the crown of the despot shines;
And when'er he lacks, upon our backs
Fresh loads he deigns to lay:
We're far too low to vote the tax
But not too low to pay.

We're low, we're low -- we're very, very low --
And yet from our fingers glide
The silken floss and the robes that glow
Round the limbs of the sons of pride;
And what we get, and what we give,
We know, and we know our share;
We're not too low the cloth to weave,
But too low the cloth to wear.

We're low, we're low, we're very, very low,
And yet when the trumpets ring,
The thrust of a poor man's arm will go
Through the heart of the proudest king.
We're low, we're low -- mere rabble, we know --
We're only the rank and the file;
We're not too low to kill the foe,
But too low to share the spoil.

Notes to the People, 1852

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