this book is an exercise in historical pot-boiling. It reflects no credit on Dr. Read, the senior member of the partnership, and it continues the injustice to O’Connor of almost all previous assessments. We have long needed a rounded biography of the man who was leader of the greatest mass movement in the history of the British working class; and it is still lacking. This present volume gives us some hitherto unpublished material on O’Connor’s Irish background, which is useful and interesting, but for his Chartist career it is cursory and superficial, following as it does a hackneyed treatment of the man and the movement. Apart from the Irish chapters, an emphasis on O’Connor’s recognition of the need for an alliance between the Irish peasantry and the British proletariat, and a half-hearted attempt in the last chapter to explain O’Connor’s “demagoguery”, as it is called, there is nothing in this bitty summary that adds to our knowledge. The index is thorough. And that is all that needs to be said by way of review, since it is difficult to believe that Dr. Read, who is responsible for the Chartist section, took the writing of this potted account seriously.
The problem and the fascination of Feargus O’Connor remain. What sort of questions do we need to ask to begin the assessment of this extraordinary man? I take two matters out of many. The first is the Land Plan, that much abused scheme, so unsympathetically treated in the standard texts. How should we analyse it? As Bronterre O’Brien did, as a movement that is diversionary and reactionary from the standpoint of the real interests of the working class? As “economically crazy” as it is sometimes described? Or, as an eminent contemporary wrote, as “well-conceived”, and if it was to fail, “the causes of failure will be in the details of management, not in the principle?” (And the authorship of this commendation will come as a surprise to most readers.) Or should we begin by trying to understand the reasons for the extraordinary response among working men to this attempt to establish a peasant proprietorship in a society that was by now almost completely industrialised?
The failure to understand the meaning of the Land Plan is in the first instance a failure to place it in the history of working class ideas. The heritage of the Norman Yoke, the long memory of enclosures, the writings of the agrarian reformers from Spence onwards, the grim conditions which industrial capitalism provided for working people, all heightened the sense of injustice and encouraged the feeling for radical change that runs as a red thread through the Chartist movement. Agrarian radicalism, which almost always included a desire for the return to the land, is never far from the centre of working class thinking in the 19th century. The Chartist Land Plan arose out of the same soil and achieved the same kind of response as Owen’s community schemes or the industrial workshops of the Christian Socialists. We can accept a political analysis that defines this sort of scheme as petty bourgeois utopianism without pretending that this is the whole story. What is needed further is a humanist appreciation of the phase of working class consciousness reached by the 1840s, and a recognition that Utopian strands were closely interwoven with that general growth of proletarian consciousness that is such a marked feature of the Chartist years.
Nor, if you argue the case for the Land Plan on its own merits and away from its political implications, was the scheme so absurd as is usually stated. It was John Stuart Mill who wrote the words quoted above in support of the Land Plan, and you will find his comments in a forgotten passage in the first (1848) edition of the Principles of Political Economy. The idea and ideal of a peasant proprietary continued to win support from hard headed middle class radicals for the next thirty years. While this is a much neglected chapter in 19th century history, O’Connor, although operating in a different political context, is only the first in time in this radical tradition.
To come to my second point. If you mention Feargus O’Connor to most people who know something about working class history you will get back the kind of comment that has been the stock in trade of historians for the past hundred years. His “mind was more or less affected from the beginning” (Graham Wallas); he had all the “qualities of the successful demagogue” (E. L. Woodward); he suffered from “egomania” (Mark Hovell); he was impossible with colleagues and the failure of the movement was as