What problems did the reformers in Britain try to tackle in the 1860s and 70s and what did they accomplish ? If we compare those problems with the Russian problems what are the results of the accomplishments in both countries?
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The British reform movements of the 19th Century were concerned with improving the lot of the country’s large population of lower-income families – a daunting task in a nation with a deeply-entrenched class system and little history of regard for those communities. By shifting political power towards the estimated seven million low-income men in the country through provision of the right to vote in parliamentary elections, it was hoped that the increased influence such rights would bestow would translate into diminished grievances against the landed classes. The result was the Representation of the People Act of 1832, also known as the Great Reform Act of 1832, which was one step forward, albeit extremely limited in its effects, in acknowledgement among British reformers in Parliament, at this time, mainly the Whigs, that disenfranchisement among the country’s lower classes was not only morally wrong but political unwise. Even politically-conservative factions, mainly some among the Tories, supported some measure of reform. The 1832 Act, though, would prove more cosmetic than substantive, as criteria for determining who would enjoy the right to vote was manipulated to continue to shut-out the lowest-income families. By tying the right to vote to family size and rent, anti-reform politicians were able to blunt the effectiveness of that early effort.
In the meantime, the Chartist Movement, which took its name from the People’s Charter of 1838, which called for secret balloting, near-universal suffrage for all men over the age of twenty-one, elimination of property requirements (a system used to prevent those who couldn’t afford to own property from voting), and salaries for elected members of Parliament so that the poor could participate, continued to push for more meaningful reforms than were included in the 1832 law. While the Chartists would dissipate as a movement, their cause continued to be championed by Liberals and prominent leaders of major parties, including newly-elected Prime Minister John Russell, while Benjamin Disraeli shifted his stance from opposing reform to supporting limited reforms, the hope being that such support would translate into political support from those who would benefit from the changes.
Another factor at play was the American Civil War and Reconstruction. British leaders watched closely developments in their former colonies and pro-reform members of Parliament used political reforms in the United States to advance the cause of reform in Britain. This movement culminated with passage of the Reform Act of 1867, credit for which would be attributed to both William Gladstone, the pro-reform prime minister, and Disraeli who, as mentioned, was acting out of less-than-completely altruistic motives. This latest effort at reform, which continued to be opposed by staunch conservatives, granted the right to vote to all men, including boarders or renters who paid more than ten pounds rent a year, and reduced property requirements, but failed to entirely eliminate them. Full reform of Britain’s electoral system would have to continue to wait.
Russia during this period was similarly experiencing political and social perturbations as a result of the growing movement for reform there, including the final elimination of serfdom. Russia’s humiliation in the Crimean War (1853-1856) weakened the position of Czar Nicholas, who had been opposed to reforms but whose death in 1855 allowed for the ascent of Alexander II. Alexander II’s reforms, including abolition of serfdom and changes in how the military and police functioned relative to dissent, ushered in a new, liberal era that had the effect of emboldening political activists, including followers of Karl Marx as well as other liberal but less-radical elements, and whose movements would eventually lead to full-scale revolt against the monarchy. If the lower-classes pushing for reform in Britain had a difficult struggle, however, it was nothing like that experienced in the far more socially and politically primitive Russia. Britain’s monarchy had long since been confronted with the practical limits of its power over its subjects; the Russian monarchy, however, had no intention, yet, of sacrificing any more power than absolutely necessary. As reformers in Russia continued over the next forty years to agitate for meaningful changes, they would increasingly come up against the influence of far more ruthless and better organized movements involving some of the men who would form the basis of the Bolshevik Party, and who would subvert one 1917 revolution with another, thereby enabling them to begin to consolidate power.
Reform in Britain took hundreds of years, but the basic structures of British society were never overthrown. In Russia, reformers like by Alexander Kerensky would find themselves temporarily in power, with a mandate to liberalize Russian politics, but would be outmaneuvered by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and other intensely autocratic radicals. It would be 70 more years before another effort at reform would be made (Khrushchev’s efforts notwithstanding), and that would result in the break-up of the Russian empire known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Unlike Britain, which had a long tradition of liberal political thought, Russia had remained politically constipated, and the results were unfortunate for millions of Russians and others.
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