The Agrarian Programme of the Chartists

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 30 October 1847


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 6, p. 358;
First published: in La Réforme, November 1, 1847 and The Northern Star, November 6, 1847;
Collection(s): Northern Star
Keywords : Chartism, Agriculture

This article, written by Engels for La Réforme was reprinted in The Northern Star No. 524, November 6, 1847 with the following editorial introduction: “The following article, translated from the Réforme, the most able of the French journals, and a consistent supporter of the rights of labour in all countries, will cheer the working classes of England with the proud consolation, that henceforth the battle of universal liberty is not to be confined within the limits of our Sea-bound dungeon”.

About two years ago the Chartist workers founded an association with the object of buying land and dividing it among its members into small holdings. [1] It was hoped in this way to diminish the excessive competition between factory workers themselves, by keeping from the labour market some of these workers to form a quite new and essentially democratic class of small peasants. This project, whose author is none other than Feargus O'Connor himself, has had such success that the Chartist Land Company already numbers from two to three hundred thousand members,” that it disposes of social funds of £60,000 (a million and a half francs), and that its receipts, announced in The Northern Star, exceed £2,500 per week. In fact, the Company, of which I propose to give you later a more detailed account, has grown to such a size that it is already disquieting the landed aristocracy; for it is evident that this movement, if it continues to grow at the same rate as up to now, will end by becoming transformed into a national agitation for taking possession of the nation’s land by the people. The bourgeoisie does not find this Company to its taste either; it sees it as a lever in the hands of the people which will allow the latter to free themselves without needing the help of the middle class. It is particularly the small bourgeoisie, more or less liberal, which looks askance at the Land Company because it already finds the Chartists much more independent of its support than before the founding of the association. Moreover, these same radicals, unable to explain the indifference which the people show them and which is the inevitable consequence of their own lukewarm attitude, insist on attacking Mr. O'Connor continually as the sole obstacle to a reunion of the Chartist and radical parties. It was therefore enough that the Land Company should be the work of O'Connor to draw upon it all the hatred of the more or less radical bourgeois. At first they ignored it; when the conspiracy of silence could no longer be maintained they tried to prove that the Company was so organised as to end inevitably in the most scandalous bankruptcy; finally, when these means did not prevent the Company from prospering, they returned to the tactic that for ten years they had constantly used always without the least success against Mr. O'Connor. They sought to cast suspicions upon his character, to throw doubts on his disinterestedness, to destroy the right he claimed to call himself the incorruptible and unpaid administrator for the workers. When, therefore, some time ago, Mr. O'Connor published his annual report, six more or less radical papers, which appear to have had a clandestine meeting, joined in attacking him. These papers were the Weekly Dispatch, the Globe, the Nonconformist, the Manchester Examiner, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper and the Nottingham Mercury. They accused Mr. O'Connor of the most shameless thefts and misappropriations, which they sought to prove or to make probable by the figures of the report itself. Far from being satisfied with that, they pried into the private fife of the celebrated agitator: a mountain of accusations, each graver than the other, was heaped on him, and his adversaries could well believe that he would be overwhelmed by it. But O'Connor, who for ten years has not ceased to fight the so-called radical press, did not flinch under these calumnies. He published in The Northern Star of the 23rd of this month a reply to the six papers. This reply, a polemical masterpiece which recalls the best pamphlets of William Cobbett, refutes one accusation after another and, in its turn taking the offensive, launches against the six editors very severe attacks, full of superb disdain. This was enough completely to justify O'Connor in the people’s eyes. The Northern Star of the 30th of this month contains the votes of complete confidence in O'Connor passed at public meetings of Chartists in more than fifty localities. But O'Connor wanted to give his adversaries the opportunity to attack him in front of the people. He invited them to maintain their charges at public meetings at Manchester and Nottingham. Not one of them turned up. At Manchester, O'Connor spoke for four hours before more than ten thousand men, who applauded him thunderously and unanimously confirmed their confidence in him. The crowd was so great that, besides the great meeting where O'Connor defended himself personally, it was necessary to hold another meeting in the public square, where ten to fifteen thousand other people, who were not able to enter the indoor meeting, were harangued by several other speakers.

When the meetings had ended, O'Connor declared that he would receive the contributions and subscriptions of the members of the Land Company, and the sum paid to him that evening exceeded JI,000 (25,000 francs).

At Nottingham, where O'Connor on the next day drew one of the greatest meetings which had ever taken place there, the same popular enthusiasm was caused by his speech.

This was at least the hundredth time that Mr. O'Connor has triumphed in this brilliant way over the calumnies of the bourgeois press. Imperturbable amidst all these attacks, the indefatigable patriot continues his work, and the unanimous confidence of the English people is the best proof of his courage, his energy, his incorruptibility.

  1. The reference is to the Chartist Land Cooperative Society founded on the initiative of O'Connor in 1845 (later the National Land Company, it lasted till 1848). The aim of the Society was to buy plots of land with the money collected and to lease them to worker shareholders on easy terms. Among the positive aspects of the Society’s activity were its petitions to Parliament and printed propaganda against the aristocracy’s monopoly on land. However, the idea of liberating the workers from exploitation, of reducing unemployment, etc., by returning them to the land proved utopian. The Society’s activity had no practical success. Subsequently, in the “Third International Review” written in autumn 1850 Marx and Engels stressed that the failure of the Land Society was inevitable. They emphasised at the same time that for a while the workers could mistake O'Connor’s project for a revolutionary measure only because objectively it was directed against big landownership and thus accorded with the tendency of bourgeois revolutions to break up the big landed estates; only the demand for nationalisation of land put forward somewhat later by the Chartists ‘ revolutionary wing (O'Brien, Ernest Jones and others) corresponded to the true interests of the working class (it was included into the Chartist programme of 1851). Engels thought of sending a detailed report on the activities of the Land Society to La Réforme as can be seen from the second part of the article; but apparently he never wrote it, though he reproduced the content of petitions adopted later by this Society in his report “Chartist Agitation” (see this volume, pp. 412-14)