Issue 192 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Whenever there is a large demonstration, you can be sure that it will be described as the 'biggest this century' or the 'biggest ever'. Naturally, for there is nothing as impressive and as effective in building confidence as a massive crowd with a shared purpose and a collective spirit.
But the demonstrations organised by the London Corresponding Society (LCS) between October and December 1795 really were the biggest ever. The crowds that gathered in the fields of Islington and Marylebone and surrounded parliament were estimated at between 150,000 and 300,000 strong--in a city of 800,000 people. The modern equivalent would be a demonstration of 1.5 million.
The Corresponding Societies were formed to campaign for the reform of parliament in 1792, just as the reactionary monarchies of Europe were preparing to declare war on the French Revolution. They called themselves 'corresponding' because it was illegal to form a national organisation, and from the first months they were faced with organised violence from 'church and king' mobs mobilised by the Tory government. In 1794 their leaders were arrested and put on trial for their lives. The wife of Thomas Hardy, the shoemaker who founded the LCS, died in childbirth as the mob besieged their home.
From the start the societies advanced an entirely new form of politics. The first principle of the London society was 'that the number of our members be unlimited'. Ideas and discussion were to be the property of all. The weekly subscription was set low. Political organisation was no longer to be confined to the elite or to the 'educated'. The societies included artisans, traders and professionals. But the formation of the societies marked the first occasion when working people organised themselves for their own ends.
As the crisis of the French Revolution passed and the tide of reaction in Britain ebbed, the societies grew in number and confidence. Groups re-emerged from clandestinity in the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the north. Then, in the spring of 1795, the ruling class was faced with a sudden crisis.
First, a poor harvest led to a severe shortage of wheat. Prices rose rapidly, workers were laid off and wages were cut. The result was a wave of food riots, spreading across the entire country. Workers seized food stocks and took over markets, forcing traders to lower their prices. In Devon alone there were 43 food riots, bringing together organised groups of workers such as the weavers and dockyard workers.
Next the government's attempt to impose conscription of militia for the war met with widespread defiance. Each county was obliged to draw up an annual list of men eligible for service. Those with money could buy their way out. The vast majority could not afford to. In Lincolnshire, demonstrations and riots in the villages forced the authorities to abandon recruitment completely. In many areas the militia joined in the food riots.
Finally the food shortage at home and the success of the French armies on the continent produced a strong backlash against the war itself. Manufacturers petitioned parliament because of the disruption of trade. The 'church and king' mobs vanished into thin air.
In an atmosphere of crisis, the prime minister, William Pitt, agreed to recall parliament and discuss the possibility of peace negotiations. It was the opportunity the activists within the London Corresponding Society had awaited.
In the summer they had won a referendum of the society calling for public demonstrations for reform. Already the first of these had resulted in the largest reform demonstration yet seen. Now they called for an assembly at Copenhagen Fields in Islington. Tens of thousands responded--men, women and children. Three days later, on 29 October, a crowd estimated at 200,000 surrounded Westminster. The king was hissed and hooted, his carriage stoned. The slogans of the crowd linked the demand for bread with the call for peace. And along with these slogans came the cries, 'Down with Pitt! No war! No king!'
The government responded in the only way it knew. A proclamation was issued against seditious assemblies. Speeches 'inciting people to hatred or contempt' of the king or the government became punishable by death. Meetings of more than 50 people could not be held without notifying a magistrate. Defiance of bans on meetings became punishable by death. The LCS fought back with meetings and further demonstrations, but was unable to maintain its organisation. By the time of the great mutinies of 1797 which rocked the government to its foundations, the radical movement had been forced underground.
But, although the movement was defeated, the political tradition established by the LCS was not smashed. In the waves of working class agitation which followed, from the Luddites through to the Chartists, the tradition of 1795 was renewed and strengthened--independent mass organisation of working people where the numbers were unlimited.