Review: George Julian Harney – The Chartists Were Right

Review: “George Julian Harney – The Chartists Were Right (Selections from the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 1890-1897)”. David Goodway (ed.) Merlin Press, London 2015

HarneyThis is a most welcome collection of writings, illuminating as it does even just a part of George Julian Harney’s considerable output. He is a figure who deserves far more attention, not only from the communist / labour movement and its historians, but also from those with a general interest in British history.

It was in Harney’s newspaper the Red Republican that the British working classes read the first English translation of Marx and Engels’ seminal work, the Communist Manifesto. That particular translation has long since fallen by the wayside, yet its impact at the time must have been considerable.

The editor provides a very interesting biographical sketch by way of introduction. It is frustrating at times that apparent errors risk confusing the narrative. The account of Harney’s famous election challenge to Lord Palmerston at his constituency seat of Tiverton is within a couple of pages somehow transported forty miles south-west to the pretty Dartmoor town of Tavistock! As a devotee and sometime resident of Devon, I hope the author will forgive me pointing out this error; it does not and should not detract from the work as a whole.

The years from which these writings stem can be considered the twilight of Harney’s long life – and not just in the sense that from the ripe old age of 73, his health began to decline and he received frequent letters informing of the death of this or that friend or former comrade.

The immaturity and utopianism of some of his youthful stances, though no doubt endearing at the time in combination with a good deal of vigour and enthusiasm, become in old age a distorted weapon to turn against the radicals who followed in his footsteps and deserved – but did not receive – his support.

In this way, Harney contrasts the mooted “Sacred Month” of the late 1830s (i.e. a general strike) with the potential at the time of writing for a strike by miners. At the time the Chartists conceived of such a bold plan, it would have been necessary to criticise and correct Harney’s expectation that such a strike could be achieved without resentment, without disorder, and on a neatly limited basis causing minimal disruption. Nonetheless, he and other “physical force” Chartists were undoubtedly among the most advanced elements of the movement for working-class emancipation.

How disappointing then, that half a century later we find Harney preserving the utopian and unrealistic expectations of how a strike could be conducted as an impossible benchmark, in order to decry the miners’ struggle as sectional and misguided, likely to lead to higher prices and even fuel poverty for the general population.

It would be difficult to claim Harney was by this stage an outright cynic – it is clear from his titular proclamation that “The Chartists were Right” and his repeated missives to newspapers setting the record straight on misreported aspects of Chartist history (signing himself proudly as an Old Chartist) that he regards his later outlook as a progression rather than a wholesale rejection of his previous activities. Life is complex, leaving us with loyalties which may outlast the opinions which originally catalysed those bonds. He was, however, a reactionary in his old age, and the development leaves a bitter taste.

Nevertheless – this collection is well worth a read, not least for the sustained quality of Harney’s writing, the richness and varied nature of his experiences (spanning the Channel and Atlantic, as Harney lived in both Jersey and Massachusetts before returning to England for the period covered by this book), and the various personalities who resurface at unexpected moments and provide perhaps an unrivalled glimpse into the associations and friendships among surviving Chartists and their sympathisers.

I for one hope that sometime in the near future another instalment in this series of Chartist Studies is planned, to take in Harney’s earlier career.

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