Friday, 5 October 2018

Land and Freedom

Book Review from the London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 65 (Autumn 2018)

‘Kill all the Gentlemen’ Class struggle and change in the English countryside 
By Martin Empson
Paperback, 314 pages
Bookmarks, 2018
ISBN: 9781910885697

Martin Empson is well known as a socialist campaigner against climate change, and writes with deep passion about how ‘under capitalism, everything from land and water to plants and animals is turned into a commodity’ and ‘capitalism transformed everything about rural life and agriculture’.

For some activists in the environmental movement, and others, the solution to present day environmental destruction is either to try and go back to some preindustrial mythical idyll, or at the very least to simply romanticise more pastoral agrarian societies that existed before the rise of capitalism.

A warning about where such backward looking thinking can potentially lead might be seen from the intellectual evolution of environmental campaigning writer Paul Kingsnorth – who over the past fifteen years has gone from celebrating the global anti-capitalist movement (see his 2003 work One No, Many Yeses) to an essentially reactionary obsession with a search for ‘Real England’ and a call for a ‘patriotic’, ‘benevolent green [English] nationalism’ as ‘to tie our ecological identity in with our cultural identity’.

As a Marxist, Empson’s history of ‘class struggle and change in the English countryside’ is therefore a timely and welcome antidote to any such backward-looking thinking that national ‘cultural identity’ is something essentially static or timeless, and not forever in flux and evolution.  Empson’s work is not about a mythical lost ‘Merrie England’ but rather takes as its focus rural class struggles from below, and provides a superb synthesis of a mass of material across the best part of a millennium.

Empson notes that ‘the struggles of the rural population did not begin with the development of capitalism’, for ‘the rights and traditions that the English peasantry had were rooted in much earlier battles’, indeed he begins with a detailed discussion of ‘the first great mass rebellion of ordinary people against the feudal system’, the Peasants’ Revolt’ of 1381.

Empson’s work fuses the spirit and analysis of classic socialist and Marxist historiography on the Peasants’ Revolt by the likes of Reg Groves, Phillip Lindsey and Rodney Hilton with more recent scholarship by Juliet Barker and others to give a detailed and thoughtful overview of this famous uprising – and its brutal, bloody crushing by the feudal overlords.  ‘The ruling class never forgot the few weeks when the peasant masses managed to capture some of their most important towns and cities and killed many senior figures’, Empson writes.

There are detailed character sketches of the key rebel leaders like John Ball, Jack Straw and Wat Tyler, while personally as someone who was born in Bury St Edmunds - today a fairly sleepy market town marketed as ‘the Jewel of Suffolk’ by the local tourist board – it was thrilling to read Empson’s account of the local revolt led by former priest John Wrawe during 1381.   

Indeed, after reading Empson’s book one cannot help but be reminded that every sleepy English village or market town one might pass through today would have seen some kind of ‘now open, now hidden’ class struggle over land and freedom at some point.  

In these early revolts, inevitably those who rebelled went wider than just the very poorest in society, and ‘on occasion even members of the gentry, such as Sir Roger Bacon, joined in’ the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This was a factor even more emphasised in Jack Cade’s revolt of 1450 with its epicentre in and around Kent, and which saw a rebel army form and put forward ‘a series of radical demands by a cross section of the population that wanted an end to the abuses and corruption of Henry VI’s reign’.   Yet as Empson notes, the emergence of a middling sort as a social group in opposition to the rich and powerful ‘could not and would not have stormed London and forced the king to flee without the involvement of thousands of men and women who had their own fears and dreams’ based around ideas of common ownership, and ‘who continued to rise and resist the king’ even after the Cade rebellion had been defeated.

But by the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, part of the wider Lincolnshire rebellion beginning in 1536 got going, it was not long before ‘the gentry had taken leading roles in the uprising’, with the consent of ‘the commons’.   Yet the gentry in this struggle had a different strategy to that of the commons – to play for time and encourage the king to issue a pardon – and as Empson notes, ‘They wrote to the king’s commander “claiming that their strategy was to divert the commons’ energy into petitioning and waiting for an answer at Lincoln rather than marching further south”.’

And so ‘despite a large army – 10,000 marched to Lincoln … the gentry were able to eventually make the rebels return home’.  As the risings spread over the next few months more nationally, and new leaders emerged, such as Robert Aske in York, Empson notes ‘the commons failed to develop their own leadership which would have allowed the rank and file to push forward where the gentry hesitated’.

Though defeated for the time being, many in the commons began to understand  now clearly how ‘the gentlemen’ would tend to betray their often mass and impressive struggles.   

This is where the title of Empson’s book now emerges from, as the slogan ‘Kill the Gentlemen’ first appeared in the Lincolnshire rising of 1536 – and popped up repeatedly in subsequent revolts in the Tudor period.  As a bill posted in Leeds in 1537 put it, summing up the lessons of the class struggle to that date, ‘Commons, keep well your harness.  Trust you no gentlemen.  Rise all at once’.

It might have been interesting if Empson had expanded a little more on the ideas and ideology of the early rebels – from what was meant by the ideas of ‘the commons’, which pops up repeatedly in the slogans of these early revolts – critically engaging perhaps with the work of Peter Linebaugh – to other ideas around what Christopher Hill called the ‘myth of the Norman Yoke’, the myths and legends around Robin Hood, and what this character came to symbolise for the rural poor in the face of enclosure, injustice and oppression.  

One gentleman who seems to have bucked the general trend in terms of betrayal, the exception who proves the rule perhaps, was Robert Kett, leader of what became known as Kett’s Rebellion in 1549 in and around Norwich, part of a wider year of peasant rebellion and ‘commotion time’ which also saw the more religious ‘Prayer Book Rebellion’ around Exeter.  However this period began to see the rise of capitalist agriculture with the English Civil War,  the development of more individualistic minded yeoman farmers amid the ‘liquidation of the peasantry’ through enclosure of the common land for the benefit of landowners.  Empson introduces both the debate among Marxists around ‘the transition from feudalism to capitalism’ as well as more critically pointing out the human cost of this transition – as he notes, this form of enclosure ‘broke people from their traditional use of the land, destroyed communities and forced people off the land, turning them into wage labourers’.   

Between 1793 to 1815, almost 9 percent of England was enclosed by Act of Parliament – part of the British ruling class’s ‘civilising mission’ to ‘modernise’ just as much as its colonial expansion overseas.  And like the British Empire faced colonial resistance and revolt, so ‘the development of capitalist agriculture and capitalist relations in the countryside was fought ever step of the way’ in Britain, with riots over customary rights and the production and control of food.

Indeed, General Thomas Maitland had been part of the British Empire’s doomed attempt to recolonise and reimpose slavery on revolutionary Saint-Domingue in the 1790s during the Haitian Revolution – and then was in overall command of repressing the Luddite rebellion in the North of England in 1812, before going on to be a colonial governor in Malta and what is now Sri Lanka.   

Empson details famous movements such as Luddism, Swing, and the Tolpuddle Martyrs amid the general ‘rise of the rural proletariat’ and then the long, patient, struggle for agricultural workers’ trade unionism in the latter half of the nineteenth century – often waged initially by liberals like Joseph Arch.  As Empson tellingly notes, the popular commemoration of the Tolpuddle Martyrs by the wider trade union movement ‘contrasts almost completely with the way that the victims of the repression that followed Captain Swing a few years before have been forgotten’.

Empson’s work – impressive in its mastery of so many different struggles over so many centuries and in many ways reminiscent of classic works such as A L Morton’s A People’s History of England and the more recent A Radical History of Britain by Ted Vallance – will hopefully inspire further research and recovery of other ‘forgotten fighters’ for land and liberty in the English countryside.  

Christian Høgsbjerg

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