Fwd: Peoples Assemblies

Mark Barrett marknbarrett at googlemail.com
Tue Mar 23 15:40:37 GMT 2010

The idea of organising independently of the state in order to challenge the
established political order, which we put forward in the shape of People’s
Assemblies, is not new or foreign to British social history.
>From the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 17th century, to the
Chartists of the 19th century, through to the trade unions in the period
following World War One, ordinary people have combined to confront the

The Levellers were the left-wing of the New Model Army in the civil war
between parliament and Charles I. Regiments elected representatives or
“agitators” to the Army Council and these were recognised by the commanders.
Levellers took many of these positions.

In the famous Putney Debates held in October 1647, the Levellers challenged
Cromwell with a draft Agreement of the People, which gave everyone the vote
and insisted that Parliament should pass no laws “evidently destructive to
the safety and well-being of the people”.

The Chartists, who campaigned for the vote for working men, held various
Conventions during their struggle which began in the late 1830s when an
estimated 300,000 people assembled at Kersal Moor near Manchester. Typical
slogans on the day were “For Children and Wife we’ll War to the Knife” and
“Bread and Revolution”.

In 1839, the Convention of the Industrious Classes met first in London and
then Birmingham. It considered what to do in the event that Parliament
rejected the Chartist petition signed by 1.2 million people. Delegates
adopted the formula of “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must”. A
manifesto of “ulterior measures” included a month’s general strike, a resort
to arms and a trade boycott.

In 1848, galvanised by a revolution in France, the Chartist movement made a
final attempt to achieve its demands through a petition backed by a
demonstration of over 200,000 at Kennington. The government feared a
revolution and blocked the bridges across the Thames.

The Chartists then convened a National Assembly for May 1 as a would-be
rival seat of power to Parliament. Its aim was to continue sitting until the
Charter was law. The Assembly took on policies way beyond the Charter,
including the severing of the connection between church and state, the
repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland, the employment of poor on
public works and even a recommendation of arming the people. An insurrection
launched in August 1848 was defeated.

After the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which overthrew the Tsar,
the idea of Soviets or Workers’ Councils, which had spearheaded the movement
against autocracy, spread through Europe. The Labour and Socialist
Convention held at Leeds on 3 June 1917 was held expressly “to follow

The conference attended by 1,600 delegates adopted a resolution that called
on the labour movement to establish councils of workers and soldiers'
delegates to work for, among other things, the complete political and
economic emancipation of international labour. During the brief General
Strike of 1926, workers’ council were established in some towns and became
the effective power in the area.

Now that the right to vote has been neutered by an undemocratic
Parliamentary system in serious decay, the conditions are emerging to
reassert more fundamental rights to do with power and control over our
lives. That is why we not only say “Hang on to your vote” at the election
but also urge the building of People’s Assemblies as a possible mechanism
for carrying through revolutionary change in the traditions of the
Levellers, Chartists and trade unionists of earlier eras.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
19 March 2010

Charles says:

A valuable summary. I think you may have put the Levellers more to the left
than they actually were and I don't think you mentioned the Diggers who were
more revolutionary, if prematurely - but the same could be said for most of
the Levellers' objectives. Another difficulty was the pervasiveness of
religious ideas in all of the politics of the time (still a problem!) as
well drawn out in David Caute's novel about Gerald Winstanley, the leader of
the Diggers (Comrade Jacob, Quartet Books,1973).

I was glad to see the Russian soviets properly acknowledged. If only "All
Power to the Soviets!" had materialised we would have a different sort of
history to talk about. Tragically, there were all those Whites and the
dastardly military interventions of the West, added to all the devastation
and demoralisation of the war with Germany. The soviets or any other sort of
People's Assemblies didn't have much of a chance really. Equally tragic, in
the present day any attempts along these lines to seize real power will have
to contend with well armed and ruthless capitalist totalitarian states, with
their ever growing surveillance technology and backed up by the lying
corporate media. I think we have to hope for mutinies in the armed forces
and police forces. A general strike might not come amiss either. We
certainly live in interesting times.
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