The Chartists Sacred Month of August 1839 & the politics of a Greek Oxi
In August 1839 the Chartists proclaimed a Grand National Holiday or Sacred Month.
The ‘Holiday’ was the idea of William Benbow. Like many radical activists in the nineteenth century he ranged across a variety of occupations, from pornographer to coffee house keeper to grocer and journalist, to survive.
Benbow’s plan might well have stayed simply an interesting idea were it not for the fact that the Chartist Convention of summer 1839 adopted it as policy and determined to put it into operation in August of that year, starting on the 12th of the month.
It is was a view of the early labour movement, which in the period of what some call ‘late capitalism’ has, once again, a strong echo.
We are familiar with General Strikes around the world which demand specific things. The Grand National Holiday wanted to go much further. In short it planned to disengage from capitalism until the system stopped working.
This meant that not only was no work to be done, but that supporters of the Sacred Month should withdraw any savings they had in banks or other institutions. They were also required to abstain from all taxable articles such as drink and tobacco. On 12th August 1839 in many, mainly northern areas, the pubs were shut.
It was argued that aside from anything else this prevented any disorder and drunkenness as the month got underway.
How was the call for the Sacred Month implemented?
The weekly Chartist newspaper The Northern Star for the 17th and 24th August 1839 reported meetings across the north, often with very large turnouts comprising a majority of the working population of particular areas, which then proceeded to march to surrounding locations to pull others out in support of the Sacred Month.
Perhaps the best way of describing this is as a mass flying picket, but before the motor vehicle, the only way to do this was to march on foot.
There is not a uniform picture of how long people stayed out for- some days in a number of areas- but not the whole month. Again the logistics were complicated. With so many out, and long before any kind of welfare system, people had to balance support for the holiday with the need to survive in terms of eating and providing for those unable to work.
Perhaps some had small holdings that allowed them to survive without wage labour, possibly being only recently agricultural workers. This was part of the project that became in the later 1840s the Chartist Land Plan, but for the Sacred Month itself detail on this remains, as yet, scarce.
Even in areas where the strike did not take hold there was at least symbolic support. In London on 12th August there was a mass Chartist meeting on Kennington Common for example.
Why did the strike fail?
Firstly because many leading Chartists were understandbly preoccupied with State persecution, arrests and trials, relating to the 1839 Convention and didn’t give full attention to organising the Grand National Holiday.
Just before the Holiday was due to start the comparatively right-wing Chartists, Collins and Lovett, had been jailed.
Secondly because the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act had seen the introduction of new police forces in some areas. For example in Manchester the police, known as the ‘bludgeon men’ attacked and arrested strikers. The authorities, as might be expected, wanted to thwart the Sacred Month, if need be by force.
The historian of Chartism Malcolm Chase notes that with support for the Holiday being patchy the Convention attempted to draw back from a month long cessation from work and replace it with a three day General Strike starting on Monday 12th August.
Yet in some places the tone of Chartist literature was decidedly revolutionary if not even tinged with millenarianism, looking at a final strike against capitalism.
Of course socialists in Greece cannot simply replicate the Chartist tactics of 1839. Even so in a country where the banking system is at a state of crisis and vital supplies including medicines are under threat, the idea that capitalism is a system without a clear future-something very much in the minds of those who took action in August 1839- must be present again.
The basic idea is an important one. As European Capital tries to disengage from Athens, the Greek labour movement could sue for divorce first.
A version of this post appeared in the Morning Star on July 2nd