What problems did the reformers in Britain try to tackle in the 1860s and 70s? What did they accomplish? What problems did the Russian government try to solve in the 1860s? What did it accomplish? In what ways did the reforms in Britain and Russia differ from each other?
British reforms of the 1860s and 1870s were a continuation of earlier attempts to pro-reform members of the British parliament and their supporters among organized labor and the lower classes of British society. The Representation of the People Act of 1832, known less formally as the Reform Act of 1832, was an early effort at expanding voting rights to broader categories of British citizens, specifically men of specified means, while increasing political representation for the fast-growing northern cities which had previously been underrepresented. In addition to spreading political power among greater tracts of British territory, the 1832 Act also gave the right to vote to lower-income male heads-of-households in which the individual male possessed a domicile the value of which exceeded ten pounds. While the effects of the 1832 Act were limited, with most adult males still denied the right to vote, the Act did begin to move the process of political reform forward.
Because of continuing complaints among the lower-class communities regarding discriminatory policies and continued denial of universal voting rights, the Peoples 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, was drafted and continued to be advanced by supporters known as “Chartists.” While the Chartist Movement would dissipate by 1848, its central themese continued to resonate with Britains’ lower classes, and the reform movement would survive and foster further reforms.
Subsequent measures considered and passed by Parliament further expanded the pool of men who would henceforth enjoy the right to vote. Most prominently among these measures was the Reform Act of 1867, which further expanded the category of adult male who would henceforth enjoy the right to vote, with minimal property or income requirements for an individual to have the right to vote decreased even further than had been posed in the 1832 Act.
The British reform movements throughout the 19th Century were focused on the issue voting rights for the country’s male population. It would, of course, take centuries longer than necessary to institute universal voting rights for men, but ultimate Britain got there. Women, of course, would have to wait, as would be the case “across the pond” in the United States.
The situation in Russia bore little comparison with that in Great Britain. Whereas Britain was one of the world’s leading industrial powers and possessed of a legacy of liberal political thought that began with the notion of restraints on the power of the monarchy, Russia was still a backwater of European politics, with the Romanov Dynasty grudgingly and rarely successfully implementing economic and social reforms that would empower the lower classes. The death of Czar Nicholas in 1855, already weakened politically by Russia’s losses in the Crimean War, and who had strenuously opposed reforms pertaining to the status of serfs, opened the door to the ascent of Alexander II, who adopted a liberal policy with regard to social reforms. Alexander II’s abolition of serfdom and reform of Russia’s military and police paved the way for greater openings in Russian society, but did not go far enough with regard to empowering the lower classes and allowing for greater economic opportunities for the now-former serfs. Plus, Russia’s upper classes remained resistant to reforms that threatened to shift power towards the lower classes and that would aggravate existing social and economic conditions – not ironically, the very areas that were most in need of reform. It would take a series of additional reforms by the monarchy and growing revolutionary fervor among committed followers of the writings of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to ultimately overthrow the existing political structures. That those structures would be replaced by one of the most brutal regimes in history would be testament to dangers of waiting too long to implement reasonable reforms that address legitimate grievances before the disadvantaged and disaffected decide to adopt more militant tactics.