George Julian Harney, the son of a seaman, was born in Depford on 17th February, 1817. When Harney was eleven he entered the Boy's Naval School at Greenwich. However, instead of pursuing a career in the navy he became a shop-boy for Henry Hetherington, the editor of the Poor Man's Guardian. Harney was imprisoned three time for selling this unstamped newspaper.
This experience radicalized Harney and although he was initially a member of the London Working Man's Association he became impatient with the organisation's failure to make much progress in the efforts to obtain universal suffrage. Harney was influenced by the more militant ideas of William Benbow, James Bronterre O'Brien and Feargus O'Connor.
On 28th January 1839 Harney argued: "We demand Universal Suffrage, because we believe the universal suffrage will bring universal happiness. Time was when every Englishman had a musket in his cottage, and along with it hung a flitch of bacon; now there was no flitch of bacon for there was no musket; let the musket be restored and the flitch of bacon would soon follow. You will get nothing from your tyrants but what you can take, and you can take nothing unless you are properly prepared to do so. In the words of a good man, then, I say 'Arm for peace, arm for liberty, arm for justice, arm for the rights of all, and the tyrants will no longer laugh at your petitions'. Remember that."
In January 1837 Harney became one of the founders of the openly republican East London Democratic Association. Soon afterwards Harney became convinced of William Benbow's theory that a Grand National Holiday (General Strike) would result in a uprising and a change in the political system.
At the Chartist Convention held in the summer of 1839, Harney and William Benbow convinced the delegates to call a Grand National Holiday on 12th August. Feargus O'Connor, argued against the plan but was defeated. Harney and Benbow toured the country in an attempt to persuade workers to join the strike. When Harney and Benbow were both arrested and charged with making seditious speeches, the General Strike was called off. Harney was kept in Warwick Gaol but when he appeared at the Birmingham Assizes the Grand Jury refused to indict him.
Disappointed by the failure of the Grand National Holiday, Harney moved to Ayrshire, Scotland, where he married Mary Cameron. Harney's exile did not last long and the following year he became the Chartist organizer in Sheffield. During the strikes of 1842 Harney was one of the fifty-eight Chartists arrested and tried at Lancaster in March 1843. After his conviction was reversed on appeal, Harney became a journalist for Feargus O'Connor's Northern Star. Two years later he became the editor of the newspaper.
Harney became interested in the international struggle for universal suffrage and helped establish the Fraternal Democrats in September 1845. It was through this organisation that Harney met Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Harney persuaded both men to write articles for the Northern Star. Excited by the Continental Revolutions of 1848, George Julian Harney travelled to Paris in March, 1848 to meet members of the Provisional Government.
Harney was now a socialist and he used the Northern Star to promote this philosophy. Feargus O'Connor disagreed with socialism and he pressurized Harney into resigning as editor of the paper. Harney now formed his own newspaper, the Red Republican. With the help of his friend, Ernest Jones, Harney attempted to use his paper to educate his working class readers about socialism and internationalism. Harney also attempted to convert the trade union movement to socialism.
R. G. Gammage commented: "George Julian Harney's talent was best displayed when he wielded the pen; as a speaker he never came up to the standard of third class orators. The more knowing politicians adjudged him to be a spy, but there was no ground for such a supposition. Many a young man of inflexible honesty has been as foolish in his day as was George Julian Harney. Harney appeared to think that nothing but the most extreme measures were of the slightest value. He was for moving towards the object by the speediest means, and he seldom, if ever, stopped to calculate the cost. It might serve very well for men who wanted a reputation for bravery to deal out high sounding phrases about death, glory, and the like; but no body of men have the right to organise an insurrection in a country, unless fully satisfied that the people are so prepared as to hold victory in their very grasp; and a conviction of such preparedness should be founded on better evidence than their attendance at public meetings, and cheering in the moment of excitement the most violent and inflammatory orator."
In 1850 the Red Republican published the first English translation of The Communist Manifesto. The Red Republican was not a financial success and was closed down in December, 1850. Harney followed it with the Friend of the People (December 1850 - April 1852), Star of Freedom (April 1852 - December 1852) and The Vanguard (January 1853 - March 1853).
After The Vanguard ceased publication Harney moved to Newcastle and worked for Joseph Cowen's newspaper, the Northern Tribune and after travelling to meet French socialists living in exile in Jersey, Harney became editor of the Jersey Independent. Harney's support for the North in the American Civil War upset Joseph Cowen and in November 1862 was forced to resign.
In May 1863 Harney emigrated to the United States. For the next fourteen years he worked as a clerk in the Massachusetts State House. After his retirement he returned to England where he wrote a weekly column for the Newcastle Chronicle.
George Julian Harney died on 9th December, 1897.