The Dignity of Chartism: On the legacy of Dorothy Thompson


To celebrate the publication of The Dignity of Chartism, the new collection of the late Dorothy Thompson’s  groundbreaking essays on Chartism, we bring you Professor Malcolm Chase’s talk from the book’s launch event held at the Marx Memorial Library on the 5th June 2015.

In the talk, Malcolm highlights Dorothy’s pivotal position in the study of Chartism. Her work opened up new areas for the study of Chartism, particularly in the central position of women in the movement and the attempt to rehabilitate the grassroots leadership of the much-maligned Feargus O’Connor, and influenced generations of Chartist scholars.

Dorothy Thompson is a historian whose stature has not diminished since she hung up her typewriter in her early 80s. Along with the recent new edition (from the wonderful Breviary Stuff publishers) of her 1984 monograph The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution, the book we launch tonight helps further to cement her reputation, not only as a critically important historian of Chartism but as a leading figure among British historians on the post-War left. And that is a group, I need hardly elaborate to a Marx House audience, of massive ability and influence. 

I must say that Verso have done Dorothy proud. This is such an attractive volume, in form as well as content, starting with the front cover with its dense typography, imitative of Victorian political posters. The eighteen essays and reviews it contains will repay reading and re-reading, as does Stephen Roberts introductory essay and his light but well-informed commentary as the collection unfolds. Thanks to his energy and dedication, we have a book that can be read on two levels: first as an invaluable book on Chartism, and second as a compelling portrait of Dorothy Thompson as a historian and as a person.

The title of the volume Dorothy published soon after herretirement from the University of Birmingham(Queen Victoria: Gender and Power) reminds us that she had no wish to be exclusively categorised as a historian of Chartism. Yet it is hard for us to imagine Chartism, effectively Britain’s civil rights movement, without her guiding hand. Although the big book appeared only in 1984, she had first published on the subject as early as 1948. Occasional pieces in the 1950s broadened to regular reviewing during the 1960s. In 1971 she published a collection of documents – The Early Chartists, will somebody now reprint this please? – that stamped her authority on the field. A fluent and arresting essayist (in essence The Chartists was an essay collection), Thompson published her last piece on the subject in the year she turned 84. That too is very appropriately included here.

My tagging Chartism as Britain’s civil rights movement may seem implausible. After all manhood and not universal suffrage was the emphatic first point of the six that comprised the People’s Charter. Women, however, played a central role in this movement and Dorothy Thompson was not only the first to demonstrate that this was so, she also remains the most eloquent and persuasive of those historians to have written in detail on this aspect of the movement. Presumably to avoid duplicating material that has already been re-published elsewhere, The Dignity of Chartism does not include the wonderful 1976 essay where she first and most powerfully

  • set out the evidence for the more equal and cooperative kind of political activity among women and men that prevailed in the early years of the movement; and then
  • went on to suggest very cogently why this was not sustained.

The exclusion of this piece (originally published in a 1976 collection, The Rights and Wrongs of Women, edited by Juliet Mitchell and Ann Oakley) is disappointing. But it is the only reason to be disappointed with this book. For in all other respects this is a cornucopia in which even those who think that they know Dorothy’s work, or the history of Chartism in detail, will find much that is unfamiliar, intriguing and thought-provoking.

Did, indeed, Dorothy Thompson ever write anything that was not thought-provoking? I do not mean just provocative – though she was certainly capable of that when she judged it appropriate. I mean that the depth and breadth of her knowledge of source materials, and her facility at drawing out insights from them without overburdening her text with detail or lengthy direct quotation, drew in the reader to walk with, and to think, with her. 

Alongside her path-breaking work on women and radicalism, a second and highly influential theme in her work was to demonstrate the strategic importance of Feargus O’Connor’s leadership to the movement, and argue for the integrity and even heroism of that still sometimes maligned figure. Here Stephen Roberts has enterprisingly run to earth a piece first published in the Irish Democrat as long ago as 1952. Of course this is a theme that surfaces at several points across the collection – happily so for it is a difficult one to demonstrate within the compass of a few pages, since it takes us close to the heart of this historian’s achievement.

Dorothy, it is clear to me having read this book, was suspicious of biography as a genre. This suspicion was evident both in her professional practice and in her responses to interest in her own political career. One of the reviews reprinted in this collection does warmly welcome a biography, the 1958 book on George Harney by the American Albert Schoyen. However her grounds for doing so were that it constituted a step-change in a historiography that had been over-determined by historians who ‘projected their own preoccupations into the past’. 

That comment may come as a surprise to anyone aware of Thompson’s own record of political activism. This stretched from her early teens in the Young Communist League, through active membership of the Communist Party and its Historians’ Group, a prominent role in the 1956 exodus from the Party, to important contributions to feminism and nuclear disarmament campaigning in the decades that followed. Yet her own political pre-occupations surface in her work as a historian in a completely un-doctrinaire way. I recollect Dorothy saying that she was a socialist historian, but adding that her socialism directed the particular questions she asked but not what her answers should be. She was critical of the teleological spine within Marxism. It ‘too often distorted’ and ‘to a degree entrapped’ the writing of labour and social history, she argues in one of the essays reprinted here.

Although she had scant regard for the anti-O’Connorite and Fabian Socialist thrust of early histories of Chartism, she concluded that Marxist historians were no less apt to approach the subject ‘more concerned with what the working class of the period ought to have done than what it was actually doing’. Some of the sharpest criticism in this collection occurs in a review of a book on Britain in 1848 by her long-standing political comrade John Saville. ‘It refutes some of the superficial arguments of linguistic analysts’, she writes, taking a swipe at some other well-known historians along the way, ‘but provides no very convincing new suggestions’ as to why Chartism declined.

In his editorial comments, Stephen Roberts kindly notes that my own position on Saville’s view of 1848 is more positive; but there’s no denying that Dorothy’s review is, as Stephen says, penetrating and passionately engaged. Like everything she wrote, it is a tool to think with even – or perhaps especially – if you find yourself disagreeing with her.  

Thompson’s mission to rehabilitate the leadership of O’Connor (‘the most well-loved man in English public life’ during the 1840s, she claimed) has to be seen in this light – breaking free from the strangling orthodoxies of previous Marxist- and Fabian-inflected histories alike. From her own political engagement, Thompson brought to her historical work a commitment to rescue from the incomprehension of posterity the justice and, even, necessity of direct action where moral persuasion had failed

O’Connor’s at times inflammatory oratory and open advocacy of civil disobedience were not to the personal or political taste of earlier social democratic historians. Dorothy Thompson, whose personal commitments were first and foremost to the here and now as a political activist, was no hagiographer. But she saw how O’Connor was unrivalled in giving hope, a focus and a voice to the hundreds of thousands of men and women who called themselves Chartists. Her argument that ‘had the name Chartism not been coined, the radical movement between 1838 and 1848 must surely have been called O’Connorite Radicalism’ is now a central element in the historiography of the subject, uncontested even by those who – one suspects – wish it had not been not so.

It was not ever thus. Dorothy’s initial engagement with Chartism was through Ernest Jones, Chartist poet and novelist, O’Connor’s lieutenant from 1846 and the leader who did most to sustain what was left of the movement during the 1850s. Soon after moving to West Yorkshire and to part-time employment as a tutor for the University of Leeds extra-mural department, she registered for a PhD at the University on Ernest Jones, supervised first by Guy Chapman (an historian of the French Third Republic, nowadays remembered, if at all, as the husband of the novelist Storm Jameson) and then, after Chapman retired in 1953, nominally by Asa Briggs – very nominally, I think.

In a rare moment of autobiographical introspection, Dorothy told me in 2003 that she had seen ‘Jones as a poet of the revolution, as England's Ferdinand Freiligrath’ (the poet of the Young Germany movement, exiled after 1848 and briefly associated with Marx). Increasingly dissatisfied with the inadequacy of secondary work on mainline Chartism, which made ambitious original research difficult, Dorothy also, as she put it, ‘discovered that he [Jones] wasn't England's Heinrich Heine’ [or Freiligrath for that matter], and ‘in fact he was a rather less than mediocre poet’. She also concluded that his ‘fiction is best forgotten’ 

However Jones’ popularity as a leader at Chartism’s grassroots continued to impress her, especially in Halifax where of course she lived. The PhD was eventually abandoned; but long before it was, Dorothy had submitted to the tutelage of the Halifax Chartists. Her respect and critical affection for them sustained her interest in the subject across many years without any academic position or indeed much paid employment, years also of raising a family and of political activism. Halifax, as it were, was her supervisor and the work that emerged from this relationship had far greater vitality and influence than any conventional doctoral thesis ever would have done.

Ernest Jones is the central figure in the most substantial (and hitherto unpublished) chapter in this book. It is an account of Halifax Chartism jointly written with her husband. Asa Briggs commissioned it for his Chartist Studies collection of 1959 but then rejected it apparently because of its length. Even now Stephen Roberts has, wisely I think, pruned it. I venture to suggest that brevity is not the most-striking feature of Edward Thompson’s prose style. This Halifax piece exhibits not a little of its co-author’s wonderful – but also wonderfully extravagant, way with words. But happily it also exhibits a great deal of Dorothy’s command of the source material and of her perceptiveness about what it meant to be a Chartist. Because of the identity of its co-author, the inclusion of this essay will surely broaden this volume’s appeal: but let me please stress that this is a book that deserves to be read as a whole, both as an overview of Chartism and for its many insights into the mind and method of a pre-eminent historian of nineteenth-century social movements. 

It seems astonishing now, but until Dorothy published The Chartists in 1984, the only available book length history of the movement, based throughout on original archival research, was one that had first been published during the First World War Mark Hovell’s The Chartist Movement was published by in 1918 and five times reprinted before a new edition appeared in 1966, with the addition of a thin 6-page bibliographical update and a couple of swipes at un-named ‘left wing historians’; that was then itself reprinted in 1970. It’s a book that’s admirable in many ways, but it did not deserve that longevity, not least because sadly it was unfinished when Mark Hovell died heroically trying to rescue a comrade who had been overcome by gas on the Western Front in 1917. This book was completed by Hovell’s head of department, the medievalist Thomas Tout, the leading authority on C14th Anglo-Norman administrative history.

In 1984 there were three more-recent books in print but each was problematic for different reasons. First, the Briggs Chartist Studies collection had kick-started a process by which understanding of the movement had been atomised. A syncretic history was badly needed. Second, JT Ward’s Chartism of 1973 was based only on printed sources (I’ve checked: out of almost 300 footnotes just six contain a reference to archival material). That would have been extraordinary even if Dorothy’s Early Chartists documentary collection (which Ward studiously ignored) had not yet appeared. Thirdly, there was a fine book called Chartism and the Chartists by David JV Jones, but it was essentially a series of short case studies and grievously its publisher had insisted on the removal of all its references – Penguin/Allen Lane ‘banned the footnotes’ David sadly said later.

The prospect in 1984 was not all bleak. It had recently been enriched by two important books, The Lion of Freedom, James Epstein’s biography of Feargus O’Connor (based on a doctoral thesis he had completed under Dorothy’s supervision) and a seminal collection of essays he and Dorothy had co-edited, The Chartist Experience. But her 1984 monograph was the landmark text. For specialists who already knew her work it was a much-anticipated summation and extension of an already well-established contribution to scholarship; but for her many new readers it must have been a revelation.

Dorothy Thompson laid to rest for all time the spurious dichotomy that contrasted Feargus O’Connor ‘the evil spirit of an excellent movement’ as one of Hovell’s disciples put it, with William Lovett, ‘the best’ Chartist in Hovell’s assessment. Even for so thoughtful and widely read a historian as RH Tawney (in his forward to a new edition of Lovett’s autobiography) O’Connor had ‘snatched the Chartist movement after 1839 out of the hands of London, and carried it forward on a wave of misery and violence to its ignominious collapse’.

Lovett appeared so much more ‘modern’ than O’Connor or mass demonstrations by torchlight on the hillsides above Pennine milltowns. His sober and measured addresses reached out to C20th writers, like Hovell and Tawney, in a way that O’Connor’s Northern Star letters to ‘the fustian jackets, blistered hands and unshaven chins’, and peppered with capitals, italics and exclamation marks did not.

Dorothy, however, understood the profound importance of O’Connor’s leadership. This perception was rooted not only in the depth of her scholarly engagement with communities like Halifax, it also bore witness to her own political activism. She was the leading figure in a generation of historians active in (or schooled against the background of) campaigning for nuclear disarmament and civil rights, and opposing the Vietnam War. This was a generation much more empathetic to the politics of direct action than earlier social democratic historians. And following her lead, the historians in it have also been much less-insistent upon the importance of conventional party organisation.

They have also been much less hung-up on the issue of leadership, mainly because they did not buy into the argument that O’Connor somehow stole the leadership of Chartism from Lovett to the detriment of the movement’s chances of success. Dorothy recast the issue of leadership by pointedly incorporating its treatment into one of her shortest chapters, titled ‘Leaders and Followers’.

The obsession with leadership that had hitherto preoccupied so many historians had obscured the no-less significant politics of the everyday that characterized Chartism. This perhaps is where the real ‘dignity of Chartism’ lay. With this book as our guide we can 

  • revisit the astonishing extent to which Chartism forged a common language in an age when demotic speech and regional dialect prevailed.
  • Reflect on the point Dorothy Thompson first made in 1970, in the first chapter reprinted here, that contrary to all the lazy assumptions about ‘physical force Chartism’, the movement actually reduced violence in the community, as thousands gathered, ‘often with arms, often in conditions of great political tension or economic distress, and yet remained completely peaceful’.  
  • We can appreciate anew the force of her argument, and its implications, that ‘for many if not most Chartists, ‘the people’ clearly included not only men but also women and children … a different and wider meaning from that used by their opponents and [middle-class] supporters’, a concept meaning, she argues, ‘working people or the working class’.

And we can understand better her formative role in leading us to a better appreciation – more-nuanced and more-critically engaged – of the political complexity of Chartism. This book shows just how much the terrain of C19th historiography changed under the influence, and indeed under the inspiration, of Dorothy Thompson. 

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