Chartists talked the talk and walked the walk

Morning Star 1 July, 2015

Withdrawing labour was an essential component of the Chartists’ grand national holiday and it has lost none of it relevance, believes KEITH FLETT

In August 1839 the Chartists proclaimed a grand national holiday or sacred month.

The “holiday” was the idea of William Benbow. Like many radical activists in the 19th century he ranged across a variety of occupations, from pornographer to coffee house keeper, to grocer and journalist, to survive.

Benbow’s plan might well have stayed simply an interesting idea were it not for the fact that the Chartist convention of Summer 1839 adopted it as policy and determined to put it into operation starting on August 12.

As a view held by the early labour movement, in the present period of what some call “late capitalism” it has a strong echo.

We are familiar with general strikes around the world to demand specific things. The grand national holiday wanted to go much further — it planned to disengage from capitalism until the system stopped working.

This meant that not only was no work to be done, but that supporters of the sacred month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. On August 12 1839 — in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut.

It was argued that aside from anything else this prevented any disorder and drunkenness as the month got underway.How was the call for the sacred month implemented?

The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star reported on August 17 and 24 meetings across the north — often with very large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas — which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the sacred month.

Perhaps the best way of describing this mobilisation is as a mass flying picket, but before the motor vehicle, the only way to do this was to march on foot.

There is not a uniform picture of how long people stayed out for but certainly not for the whole month. The logistics were complicated. With so many out, and long before any kind of welfare system, people had to balance support for the holiday with the need to survive themselves and provide for those unable to work.

Some might have had small holdings that allowed them to survive without wages. This was part of the project that became in the later 1840s the Chartist land plan, but information on the sacred month itself remains scarce.

Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was symbolic support. In London on August 12 there was a mass Chartist meeting on Kennington Common for example.

Why did the strike fail?

First, because many leading Chartists were understandably preoccupied with state persecution, arrests and trials relating to the 1839 Convention and didn’t give their full attention to organising the grand national holiday.

Second, because the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act had seen the introduction of new police forces in some areas. For example in Manchester the police — known as the “bludgeon men” — attacked and arrested strikers. The authorities, as might be expected, wanted to thwart the sacred month, if need be by force.

Of course socialists in Greece cannot simply replicate today the Chartist tactics of 1839. But the basic idea is an important one. As European capital tries to disengage from Athens, the Greek labour movement could sue for divorce first.