The Revival of a Working-Class Agitation

The history of nearly every moral agitation and of every movement accomplished by means of physical force, shows that after the immediate object has been either partially or wholly gained, the middle classes have reaped the greater advantage, and the toiling millions have seen their own material interests neglected-their wrongs unredressed-their rights unrecognized-and their claims disregarded. In a word, they have been cheated with the shadow, while the middle classes have grasped the substance. Then, too, the middle classes have proclaimed the necessity of desisting from any further agitation, on the plea that absolute tranquility becomes necessary for the revival of trade ; and if the working classes have persisted in continuing the agitation, they have been denounced as disturbers of the peace-inveterate malcontents-and incorrigible foes to order,-while middle-class juries have been called upon to become the media of dealing forth the vengeance of sanguinary and barbarian laws. It is indeed a painful fact that the middle classes have too often proved themselves as hostile and as oppressive as the Aristocracy towards the industrious millions;-and therefore the sons and daughters of toil must at least be upon their guard, if not actually animated with suspicion, whenever they are called upon to give their adhesion to a political movement which originates with the middle  classes.

Of all such movements which have taken place within the present century, that of the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association appears to offer the best guarantees for sincerity of purposes, unflinching determination, and breadth of fundamental principle; and in my opinion it deserves the strenuous support of all true patriots and honest Reformers. But as the subjects of that Association are defined and limited, it must necessarily expire when its mission is accomplished; and as the working classes demand more than it undertakes to procure for them, a well organized agitation should at least be in embryo, if not in actual existence, to perpetuate the moral struggle of democracy against class-legislation and of right against wrong, until the full measure of reform be obtained and the regeneration of society be accomplished.  

Moreover, for the reasons alleged at the outset, the working classes must be careful how they compromise their claims by throwing themselves heart and soul into a movement which is professedly instituted to obtain for them less than the amount of those claims. They should support that movement to the utmost of their power: but they should not, by abandoning a legitimate agitation within their own sphere, lead the world to suppose that they have entered into any compromise to take less than all they were wont to claim. They should assume that imposing attitude which seems to say to the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Associate, “We go with you hand-in-hand as far as you are travelling, because our journey lies along the same road : but we tell you honestly and frankly beforehand that we do not intend to stop at the same mile-stone where yon propose to halt, inasmuch as we are bound to travel on to the end.” For it cannot be for a moment admitted nor tolerated that any Association organized by the middle classes shall settle the privileges and define the rights of the working classes. Indeed, if any one section of the community ought to have the power of establishing the nature and equilibrium of the governmental and administrative institutions, that section assuredly consists of the industrious millions, who are not only the numerical majority, but are likewise the original of all wealth and the producers of everything necessary for the support and enjoyment of life.

Again, the working classes have much to agitate for, in which they do not receive any sympathy from the middle classes. I especially allude to the rights of labour, the evils of our competition, the measures regulating the periods of labour in factories, and all the varied grievances of coal-miners, stockingers, cutlery-manufacturers, potters, weavers, agricultural labourers, &c. &c. But I need not enter into any detail of all those points on which there now exists a war to the knife between those who work and those who give work-between those whose capital is money and those whose capital is labour-between those who revel in luxury and those who starve. It is sufficient for the present purpose to know and to feel that inasmuch as a vast proportion of the wrongs and sufferings of the working classes emanates directly from the avarice, injustice, neglect, and ignorance of the middle classes, it is useless to look for total redress to this latter section of society. No middle-class movement, therefore, can ever lead to results calculated to give entire satisfaction to the working classes; and this fact constitutes perhaps the strongest argument that can be advanced to show the necessity of the working classes maintaining an incessant but peaceful and constitutional agitation of their own, despite of and in addition to any other agitation which may be concurrently instituted by the middle classes.

That an union between the two classes is most desirable, no one will attempt to deny: but an union cannot possibly be otherwise than transitory so long as the one class is resolute on stopping at a certain defined point and the other is equally determined to push the work of progress on to the extent indicated alike by reason and justice. Thus, an union between the two classes may now with a view to wrest from a reluctant Ministry certain measures of reform: but when once that point shall have been gained, the coalition must inevitably cease-one party relapsing into quiescence, and the other still magnanimously toiling on in the case of progress.

A trite smile will not be here out of place. The millions are starving and exclaim, “We have no bread!” Forth come certain individuals of the middle class, saying “We will agitate in order to obtain you half a loaf.” To this the working-classes should reply, “We will certainly join yon in the endeavor to obtain that half-loaf, because it is better than none: but inasmuch as the whole loaf is our just right and what we have always claimed, we shall perpetuate the agitation, with or without you, until we have obtained it.”

To my mind the various arguments which I have thus ventured to throw together, are conclusive in showing the necessary of a revival of  that working-man’s agitation which under the good old Saxon name of CHARTISM has already more than once convinced a tyrannical oligarchy that the millions feel their wrongs and have become impatient under them. And that the demands of the working classes may be fully understood,–and that they may stand forth in juxta-position with any petty concessions which a frightened Ministry may within a short time be disposed to grant,-I think that these demands should be recorded as follow :-

  1. Universal Suffrage.
  2. Vote by Ballot.
  3. Annual Parliaments.
  4. Equal Electoral Districts.
  5. Paid Representatives.
  6. No Property-Qualification.
  7. The Recognition of the Rights of Labour.
  8. The Abolition of the Law of Primogeniture.

It will be seen that two principles are here added to those contained in the noble document called the PEOPLE’S CHARER; and I thus annex them because the events of 1848 brought one of them so prominently before the eyes of the world, and because the other is so intimately connected with the causes of the wide-spread pauperism existing in this country. For the Rights of Labour may be summed up in the axiom that “there should be a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work; and that every man able and willing to work, should have work found for him.” As for the Law of Primogeniture, it is abhorrent to those principles of common justice and common sense which proclaim that “the earth belongs first of all to those who are upon it; and that every one is entitled to receive a subsistence from the earth, before any one individual has a right to more.” But the laws of entail, of mortmain, and primogeniture, instituted for the purpose of retaining wealth in particular channels, have been ably defined as measures that “prevent the natural circulation of property-obstruct the coming together of land and useful labour-and by thus hindering the production of food from advancing at the same rate as the production of people, spread pauperism and misery over the face of the country.”

I have now stated my opinion in behalf of a revival of a working-man’s agitation; and I have recorded the principles on which I think that agitation should be based. But I must emphatically declare that I contemplate only a legal and constitutional agitation,-adopting those means and having recourse to those expedients which are comprised within the meaning of the term—“MORAL FORCE.”

Sir Joshua Walmsley, the Member for Bolton, must now be considered the Leader of the Middle Class Movement. This gentleman is thoroughly honest and an undoubted Liberal: indeed, he himself has admitted in the public meetings, that he goes beyond the principles set forth in the “profession of faith” promulgated by the National Parliamentary and Financial Reform Association. Sir Joshua is a man of business-habits, shrewdness, tact, and indomitable perseverance : he is straightforward in his character and his speeches; and his acquaintance with the real wants and interests of the masses is apparent in the mode in which he addresses them from the platform. His votes in Parliament have always been on the right side; and it should be recorded that he was one of the fifteen who supported Mr. O’Connor’s motion for the People’s Charter last session.

Mr Feargus O’Connor, the Member for Nottingham, is the Leader of the Working Class Movement. To the cause of the sons of toil he has devoted the best years of his life : day and night has he served them with energy, fidelity, and intelligence;- and the best proof of his patriotism is to be found in the fact that he has been weariedly, shamefully, and atrociously maligned by the illiberal portion of the public press and by the upholders of existing abuses. Him whom the people love, the Aristocracy are certain to hate ;-and therefore the hated of the Aristocracy and of that large portion of the press which the Aristocracy can command, is sure to be a man whose talent, integrity, and influence are an object of dread on the part of despots.

George W.M. Reynolds

Original citation: G.W.M. Reynolds, ‘The Revival of a Working-Class Agitation’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor, November 10, 1849, pp. 1-2

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