Thursday 3 July 2014

George Julian Harney: The Chartists were Right

George Julian Harney was among the most important of the Chartist leaders. Almost uniquely, he was active throughout the movement’s history, having been a radical long before the Charter was published and living on, his political interests undiminished, until near to the end of the 19th century.

Best known as a journalist and editor of the Northern Star, Harney was a staunch internationalist and a prominent figure in the National Charter Association’s post-1848 adoption of a socialist programme. It was Harney who befriended Engels, Marx and a host of European exiles in the wake of the year of revolutions, and Harney’s own paper, the Red Republican, which first published the Communist Manifesto in English translation.

Now, in George Julian Harney: The Chartists Were Right, David Goodway has given us access to his thoughts as he looked back on a long life of political involvement through the  careful selection and editing of his columns for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, a series he continued writing from 1890 to 1897, not long before his death at the age of 81, the last surviving delegate to the first Chartist convention.

Born in 1817, Harney had started his political life as a shop boy to Henry Hetherington, then publisher of the Poor Man’s Guardian, cutting his teeth in the campaigns against the “taxes on knowledge” of the 1830s and serving two short prison sentences for his trouble.

By the time the Charter itself was published, his involvement with the ultra-radical East London Democratic Association ensured that he was sidelined by its prime move in the capital, the London Working Men’s Association, meaning he had to sit for Norwich, Derby and Newcastle at the first Chartist Convention.

But it was through his contributions to the Northern Star, first as a correspondent and subsequently as sub-editor and eventually on its relocation to London as editor that Harney became best known.

As Chartism faded after 1848, Harney went on to publish a series of short-lived radical newspapers, each less successful than the last. Following a spell as editor of the Northern Tribune, which he left after falling out with its proprietor Joseph Cowen over his support for the North in the American civil war, Harney moved first to Jersey and in 1863 to the United States.

He eventually retired to London in 1888, from where he contributed weekly to the Newcastle  Weekly Chronicle. Harney used his column to share some of his memories of the old days, commenting on the lives of Chartists he had known as he outlived them and dredging up some fascinating trivia – witness his recollection that all the delegates to the first convention had worn top hats, with the exception of the “eccentric” Dr John Taylor.

But by this time the left radicalism of the old days was long gone, or at least modified into a form of Tory radicalism that would have sat rather better with his hero William Cobbett than it did with the emerging labour and socialist movement of the late Victorian era.

Harney retained his enmity towards religion in all its superstitious forms, from Methodism to spiritualism, until his dying day. His tirade against the Theosophists in one column reproduced here is a joy to read.

But over the years his internationalism had become a British imperialism, his memories of old rivalries with the Anti Corn Law League had settled into economic protectionism, and his hostility to the Liberal Party led him into unbending opposition to Irish home rule (let alone independence).

While Harney welcomed the idea of independent working class representation in Parliament, he railed against trade unions and dismissed the newly founded Independent Labour Party, both for the religiosity of some of its leaders and, apparently, on the grounds that there were already enough political parties without founding another. Harney was not a fan of political parties, favouring independence of mind well ahead of the discipline required to get anything done.

More than once in his columns Harney distanced himself from the views he held in his youth, arguing that a man in his 80s could not be held responsible for what he had said in his hot-headed 20s. In fairness, the same argument could be applied in reverse to exonerate the exuberant and forward-thinking young Harney from the reactionary curmudgeon he sometimes appeared to be half a century later.

David Goodway, whose first book was London Chartism 1838-1848, has done a truly excellent job in ploughing through and making readable the best part of a decade’s worth of Harney’s writing, and its publication as number 12 in the Merlin Press Chartist Studies Series continues an invaluable and always readable run of books.

Victorian writers, Harney among them, were all too fond of their classical allusions and rhetorical perorations, often at great length and usually, for a modern reader, to the detriment of the argument they were seeking to make. It is a relief to say that Goodway has pruned a great deal of that away to give us access to some truly fascinating observations and recollections.

Buy George Julian Harney: 12: The Chartists Were Right: Selections from the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, 1890-97 (Chartist Studies Series)

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