Of Marx and Mutuals

The March of the Blanketeers and Peterloo

The history of working people’s attempts to win political representation, in particular how this played out in Manchester and other key northern economic powerhouses, is central to any consideration of the city. The area surrounding the Free Trade Hall was in the early nineteenth century the site from which the March of the Blanketeers set out, and also the notorious Peterloo massacre. Despite its radical heritage, Manchester Central, a safe-Labour seat, had the lowest turnout of any constituency in the last general election at 44% – the subsequent by-election tempted even fewer voters out (18%) but is this the only measure of politics? Some of Manchester’s poorest areas, and those with lowest voter turn-outs, have thriving Transition initiatives (there is a Manchester City Transition Hub to support the various initiatives around the city) and following a seven-year hiatus caused by the flooding of Manchester’s autonomous social space, the basement, Manchester has a new autonomous social centre, Subrosa, in Moss Side providing a new hub for community activism.

Marx and Engels

Manchester played a key role in the thinking, writing and activism of both Marx and Engels. Historian Asa Briggs, in Victorian Cities, notes that had Engels’ family business been in Birmingham rather than Manchester, his conception of class would have been very different. In addition, Manchester in the 1840s was a hotbed of radical ideas, which proved fertile ground for Engels’ own theorising. Marx and Engels began writing the Communist Party Manifesto in Chetham Public Library, the oldest public library in the English-speaking world.

Representing the Workers

Manchester has a vigorous history of workers representation: as well as Peterloo, there were many waves of industrial action to sweep the city (1790s Luddites and food riots, 1842 Plug Riots etc.) Manchester was a hotbed of Chartist activity (they used to meet at the Griffin Inn on Great Ancoats Street);  the first TUC meeting was held in 1868 at the Manchester Mechanics Institute – in part in response to the fact that it was felt that the London Trades Council was speaking too freely for all workers, but not inclusive enough of the north. Robert Owen is also remembered in the city with a statue on Corporation St.

What does worker representation mean today in an era of ‘bullshit jobs’ and how far is our notion of progress shattered by the fact that workers are still having to organise for the right to sick leave, holiday pay and pensions or the right to a living wage?

City of Suffrage and Feminism

Manchester was a hotbed of suffragette radicalism. The WSPU was founded in the Pankhurst family home in Manchester in 1903; it was founded to be a more militant campaigning group than the NUWS. The WSPU was to be entirely led by women and would campaign on a broader platform of social reform than just the vote. Attack on Manchester Art Gallery and the activism of Women’s campaigning. The Pankhurst Centre (Nelson St) is now a museum and a women-only space for meetings.

The Clarion and Mass Trespass

It is easily forgotten today: that many of the very successful early socialist organisations were as much about using enjoyment and leisure as a way to engage people in politics, as well as speeches and leaflets. The Clarion – the most successful socialist newspaper ever produced in Britain – became more than a paper and expanded into a movement that included cycling and rambling clubs; a highly active women’s groups, as weall as theatre, singing and children’s clubs. Their legacy was one of opening up the countryside; encouraging community organising, and crucially the importance of having a good time as a key component of political organising.

The People’s History Museum

Manchester has always been a hotbed of ideas and radicalism; it is claimed by some that vegetarianism first took off in the city in the 19th Century; it may be the only city with a building named after a principle (the Free Trade Hall – now the Raddison Blu Edwardian – a luxury hotel). It also had a fine tradition of radical, free press – although The Guardian fled to London in the 1960s – The Clarion was published here in the 1890s and Great Ancoats Street housed editor James Wroe (1788-1844) who published the radical Observer newspaper and also sold pamphlets and books – and was imprisoned a number of times for seditious publishing.