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 This present volume gives us some hitherto unpublished material on O’Connor’s Irish background, which is useful and interesting, but for his Chartist career it is cursory and superficial, following as it does a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
The verdict has been singularly unanimous; and it is very far from the truth. Let it be said at once that O’Connor was notably inconsistent, he was bombastic, he vacillated wildly in times of crisis, he refused to acknowledge the socialist implications of the Chartist position and adhered to a middle of the road, radical policy throughout his career, and in general there are many criticisms that can be made of his leadership; but when all has been said on the debit side, this is still not by any means the whole story. We should begin with Ernest Jones’ question: “but who has done so much in creating and organising the democratic mind?” Certainly no one who has lived through this last decade will ever underestimate the importance of an inspiring leadership within a popular movement. The first pre-requisite for leaders of any labour movement is that you encourage your friends by blasting your enemies. No movement of a radical kind, such as Chartism was, and as the present-day Labour Party purports to be, can develop the necessary response and enthusiasm among its supporters unless it continuously exhorts them to fight, fight and fight again against the evils which surround them, and against the personalities who symbolise these evils; and unless these things can be said in terms that appeal to the ordinary man, the appeal will fail. It is just in these matters that O’Connor was superb, and in the tough and grim conditions of the 1830s and 1840s, his achievement in radiating confidence and a belief in their own power among the meek and lowly, must never be underestimated. Despite his verbosity, he was a first rate journalist. On the platform a magnificent speaker. But above all, he had the common touch. He aroused the downtrodden masses to an understanding of their conditions as no one else was to do in the 19th century. He gave them hope and a faith in political action. Above all he communicated that feeling of self-confidence without which no popular movement can survive. In his speeches and writings he was witty and at times genuinely funny, and there were many times when he must have had his vast audiences rocking with laughter and delight at his jokes and gibes against the ruling classes. Towards the end of his life he became increasingly unbalanced and in the end, as everyone knows, he went mad; but by Harry would that he were here to bite Mr. Gaitskell and inject into him his burning sense of injustice and hatred of the ruling people and their system.
One should read Feargus O’Connor in the Northern Star and then try to imagine the public readings in the tap room, the Chartist committee room and the cottage and understand how humble people were heartened and encouraged by this man who said such biting and blasting things about those who were pleased to call themselves “their betters”. To attempt to write the history of popular movements without having served an apprenticeship in the mass movement oneself is adding to ones burdens; and it is necessary that the academic historians who are moving into the field of labour history, as an OK subject, should remember this. I am not saying that the most truthful history will necessarily be written by labour sympathisers; they have their own problems. But I am arguing that no one will make sense of labour history unless there is an appreciation of the mechanics and the dynamics of popular movements. Certainly no one can begin to understand Feargus O’Connor who fails to appreciate the role of leadership in the development of opinion. I trust that I have made it clear that a full assessment of O’Connor must balance his many mistakes against what I believe to be his considerable contribution. It will not be easy to do justice to his complicated personality. Let us begin by freeing ourselves from the prejudices of the academic historians, and let us claim, with all his faults, Feargus O’Connor as one of us.