Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Chartism: A New History (2007)

Chartism: A New History
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: September 2007
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 29: Autumn 2007  

Chartism: A New History Malcolm Chase Manchester University Press, 2007 464pp ISBN 978-0719060878

Histories of Chartism since Robert Gammage produced the first in 1854 while the movement was still an on-going concern have not exactly come thick and fast. There was a clutch of Fabian-inspired efforts around the First World War and then Reg Groves’ Trotskyist account ‘We Shall Rise Again’ - a book that could still be usefully reprinted.

In the modern era the only historian to really attempt the task, Dorothy Thompson, provided a large volume based on, for the time, state of the art research into Chartism. It could be argued that Malcolm Chase’s welcome new history of Chartism continues in that tradition.

That is to say that it doesn’t have a specifically ‘political’ take on Chartism but instead seeks to view it in the context of recent historiographical concerns and trends. For example the pages he writes on the 1839 Newport Rising are both well written and authoritative and cover the latest research in the field.

Chase ends each chapter with brief lives of some leading Chartist figures - although they are what might be called ‘second rank’ rather than national leaders. These are the kind of biographies that might have appeared in the Dictionary of Labour Biography and Chase is an authoritative figure in this area, expert at teasing out the often obscure details of Chartist lives and writings. They are interesting because they provide a window into the activism of an individual Chartist and help us to understand how the great movement that was Chartism actually worked in practice. Indeed Chase’s work on applying some of the techniques of micro-history to Chartism, for example his discussion of Chartist children, is ground breaking.

Chase also picks up on some of the charges made in Miles Taylor’s 2003 biography of Ernest Jones about anti-semitism and racism in the Chartist ranks. Chase dismisses the idea that there was a general racism in the Chartist movement. Indeed he might have said more about its international solidarity work and early anti-imperialism which John Newsinger has touched on. He does find an element of anti-semitism but explains this in the contexts of the time rather than judging it by the standards of the early twenty-first century.

Overall Malcolm Chase has produced a book that deserves to be the standard text for some years to come and to be widely read. One hopes that his publisher shares these intentions so that the readership for the book, which should be significant, can actually get hold of copies!

One is wary of reviewing books and suggesting that the author should have written another volume altogether. So let us say that important though Chase’s work is there remains room for further research and approaches in this area and hopefully his book will do something to stimulate this. It would be interesting to see some further explicitly Marxist work on Chartism, following on from John Saville’s book on Ernest Jones - which should surely be republished - his more recent work on 1848 and John Foster’s comparative study of Oldham. There is not one single Marxist approach of course but the kind of questions asked from within that tradition can still shed fresh light on some of the dilemmas and developments of Chartism.

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