Chartism was the world’s first major working class movement. It ran from 1837 to 1860. In 1926 the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote of the Chartists: “All the fundamental problems of the class movement of the proletariat—the inter-relation between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity, the role of universal suffrage, trade unions, the significance of the general strike and its relation to armed insurrection—were not only crystallised out of the progress of the Chartist mass movement but found out their principled answer.”
The association of the accession of a young woman to the throne with the demand for women's admission to the political nation was heard on a number of occasions among the Chartists and was picked up by Disraeli in his Chartist novel, Sybil or the two Nations, the only fictional treatment of Chartism which is sympathetic to the political demands of the movement or which recognizes the important part played in it by women. Well over a hundred separate female Chartist associations are recorded in the decade before 1848. For the most part, however, their activity and their programmes were supportive of male political demands, or were insisting on their rights and their needs as family members. A slogan often repeated by men and women in the movement was "No women's work except in the hearth and the schoolroom."
By the beginning of 1848 the British Chartist movement had been in existence for a decade. The People's Charter was a draft for a bill to be introduced into parliament to extend the suffrage to all men over the age of 21, to make all voting protected by a secret ballot, to remove property qualifications for membership of the house of commons, to pay all members, to establish equal electoral districts and to institute annual parliaments. The campaign was essentially the continuation of the earlier one which had achieved, in 1832, the first reform bill. The achievements of 1832 had for the most part satisfied those of the reformers who had gained admission to the franchise. Since the 1832 franchise was clearly defined in terms of property, those who remained excluded had a very strong sense of the class nature of the bill's provisions.
We are bowed down under a load of taxes; which, notwithstanding, fall greatly short of the wants of our rulers; our traders are trembling on the verge of bankruptcy; our workmen are starving; capital brings no profit, and labour no remuneration; the home of the artificer is desolate, and the warehouse of the pawnbroker is full; the workhouse is crowded, and the manufactory is deserted. We have looked on every side, we have searched diligently in order to find out the causes of a distress so sore and so long continued. We can discover none in nature, or in Providence. [from The People's Petition 1838]
In 1838 the London Working Men’s Association, which was linked to Owenite socialism and the movement for working class education, formed a committee with radical MPs which drafted the People’s Charter of democratic demands. Chartism was officially launched at a mass meeting in Birmingham and the movement rapidly gained support among the working class with 150 affiliated societies nationwide.
Chartism was definitely a high point in the history of the struggle of the international working class to organise itself, as Lenin later recognised: a nationally organised mass working class party to fight for basic political rights. At the height of its influence Chartism was the workers’ movement in Britain, and its meetings witnessed historic debates for the whole proletariat on its goals as a class and the most effective means of achieving them. At the height of the 1842 general strike in particular, the debates of the Chartists and workers’ delegates in Manchester were an important moment for clarification of the relationship between the struggle in the factories for immediate demands and the longer-term struggle for political rights as a class.
In 1838 the five-point People’s Charter was drawn up by the London Working Men’s Association and the Birmingham Political Union. It was essentially a program for universal male suffrage. Delegates to the National Convention were elected at mass meetings promoted by Feargus O’Connor’s mass-circulation weekly, the Northern Star. On February 4, 1839, a permanently sitting Convention assembled in London with fifty-five delegates. By the spring, huge demonstrations were taking place; muskets and pikes were being procured in large numbers. Even though the male leadership of the movement had decided that a demand for the female franchise would impede the enfranchisement of men, female Chartist associations were being formed.
The first ever reaction by the Victorian ruling class to “Marxism” is found in a London Times leader of September 2, 1851 on “Literature For The Poor,” “only now and then when some startling fact is bought before us do we entertain even the suspicion that there is a society close to our own, and with which we are in the habits of daily intercourse, of which we are as completely ignorant as if it dwelt in another land, of another language in which we never conversed, which in fact we never saw.” The “startling fact” in question was the “evil teachings” contained in the Chartist weekly, The Red Republican, founded in 1850 by George Julian Harney.
The draconian New Poor Law of 1834 amounted to an attack on the working class, and helped this new movement of protest to gain massive support in the north of England. There were other injustices, including the treatment of trade unionists, to fuel the fires that turned people into Chartists. The origins of Chartism were complex. For Lovett, peaceful persuasion by respectable working men - 'moral force' - was the best way to win the Charter. This strategy clashed with that of Feargus O'Connor. Self confident and energetic, O'Connor was a charismatic demagogue, who used mass meetings and the widely read 'Northern Star' to unite the forces of the working class behind him.
In the years 1839, 1842 and 1848, the Chartist Movement urged Parliament to adopt three great petitions. Of these, the best known is the final petition, with six million signatures (although a number of these were later found to be fake), presented to Parliament on 10th April 1848 after a huge meeting on Kennington Common.