Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Pamela Horn - Life and Labour in Rural England 1760-1850

Reading Pamela Horn's history is always a joy. Her writing is simultaneously entertaining as well as having the ability to draw out the historical trends. This short book covers some of the same ground as her longer book The Rural World but focuses on using examples from contemporary commentary and literature to explore how people in the period covered understood the changes taking place. But Horn never once sentimentalises the life of the people in rural England. This was a time of poverty, of (especially in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars) economic crisis for the agricultural areas and there was a vast difference between the experience of those with money and those without. Horn points out, when discussing a Wordsworth's poem The Prelude (1805) that Wordsworth's
vision of pastoral serenity conveniently ignored the harsher realities of day-to-day life on the land. It gave no indication of the long hours of drudging labour expected from most peasant cultivators or the feudal dues exacted from them by many landowners in Wordsworth's native Cumbria... This is rather a 'countryside of the mind' - a place of intellectual refuge - than one rooted in the reality of Georgian England.
She continues by quoting W.J.Keith who highlighted that "it is no coincidence that the romantic cult of wild nature flourished just at the time when the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum; the countryside is cherished only when it is seriously threatened - and it is cherished most by those who threaten it."

What the reality was for the people of rural England is ably drawn out by Horn's writing as well as the many writers she quotes. Some of these are well known, Horn draws on William Cobbett's extensive writings about the people and places of England, as well as quotes from Charlotte Bronte and others to illustrate the class contradictions. But I was struck by the power of the quotes from ordinary people. Here's a section from a long quote by Joseph Mayett, a Buckinghamshire labourer who was demobilised from the army in 1815 at the age of 32.
I gave up gathering rags and took to work for which I received 7 shillings per week to maintain me and my wife and bread was 3 shillings per loaf.. I was much distressed by the summer coming on I was soon relieved by an advance of wages but the harvest proved very wet so that I met with a disappoint[ment] by the great loss of time I sustained but after harvest I met with a place of work at the Esquire at 10 shillings per week and the price of bread was sunk to 2 shillings per loaf and by these means things of a temporal nature began to take a favourable turn... [but] in the month of January 1818 the esquire being gone out for a long time the baily took it upon himself to reduce the wages of me and several more of the men [who] had no children for he said a man without a family could live better upon 9 shilling per week than those that [had] Children could on 10 shilling but he required us to do as much work as they so in the month of March we all left.
Here we see the lot of the labourer... bounced between employers who could change salaries on a whim, food prices that rose and fell dramatically and short term working opportunities, for low pay. It is no surprise that men life Mayett would riot, protest and destroy farm equipment in order to try and defend their jobs and wages.

Horn does look at these protests (and there were significant ones such as the Captain Swing riots during the period covered). But her major focus is to try and get across the immense change that took place in the countryside in this period.
As a result of enclosure and, in particular, of the post-[Napoleonic]war agricultural depression the number of small owner-occupiers had dwindled, and the tripartite system of land cultivation, comprising landlord, tenant-farmer and agricultural labourorer had become ever more firmly entrenched.
As a French traveller noted in the early 1860s:
the commons have been continuously reduced; thus the peasant can no longer have recourse to his own small supplies of meat, and having sold his strip of land is left with nothing but his two arms, which he now hires out.
Thus, while Horn doesn't use the word particularly, this period sees the entrenchment of agricultural capitalism, and coming to dominance of urban industry in the British economy. The world had been transformed, and the rural population, rich and poor, but particularly the poor had been changed too. Horn's book is an excellent over-view of these changes, from the role of clergy to the laws on poaching, and the changes that hit the landowners. But her focus on those who worked the land is really key and is what makes this a lovely introduction to the subject and period.

Related Reviews

Horn - The Rural World 1780-1850
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class
Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Gerrard Winstanley - The Law of Freedom and Other Writings

I've been writing a couple of pieces around the Diggers and the English Revolution recently and have taken the opportunity to delve deeply into the writings of one of the most remarkable radical thinkers that have ever been produced. Gerrard Winstanley is famous for being the leader of the Diggers who camped at St. George's Hill from April 1649 and later moved to Cobham in Surrey. They were followed by a number of other camps as the English Revolution developed following the execution of Charles I. The particular conditions of the time - a desire for fundamental change, a frustration at the lack of action after Charles' death and a land and food shortage meant that Digging was not as surprising a reaction as might be expected. The camps didn't last - mostly as a result of repression - but they did serve as a minor experiment in revolutionary new ways of living.

This collection of essays comes with an excellent introduction to the life and ideas of Gerrard Winstanley by the radical historian Christopher Hill. Since many of Winstanley's writings are available online, it would be worth searching out the book just for Hill's introduction. That said, however, the real pleasure in this volume is the remarkable writings of Winstanley himself.

This is for two reasons. Firstly Winstanley writes beautifully. Much of his polemic is deeply immersed in biblical allusion and analysis. For those of us not well-versed in the Bible, this is a challenge, but as Hill himself points out, Winstanley can actually be read like you would read poetry. But even a passing understanding of the bible allows the reader to get a sense of Winstanley viewing his world, and his history through a radical religious reading that is fundamentally challenging the status quo.

Winstanley didn't believe the bible was a literal work of history, but he did believe that God had created the world to be a common treasury for everyone. This arrangement had changed with the Fall of humanity, a fall that took place as individuals began to covert things and private property arose. For him, private property caused the fall of humanity, and led to war, jealousy and conflict. Thus the opposite was also true. A new world could be built, that would end private property and transform human relations.

The biggest gem in this collection, and perhaps Winstanley's most fascinating work is the title piece, The Law of Freedom, in which a disappointed Winstanley, who has seen the end of his efforts to built a new world through exemplary farming of waste land, appeals to Cromwell to bring about the Commonwealth. Winstanley systematically describes the workings of his utopia, from the shared storehouses that take the surplus of production to distribute to everyone who needs it, to the postal system that will ensure the news of the realm is distributed everywhere and, perhaps most importantly, to the system of annual elections that ensure corruption of officials cannot take place. It's a fascinating vision of Utopia, which has some similarities to actually revolutionary changes, in others, such as its focus on the family unit of production and its absolute patriarchy, it is clearly born of the limitations of 17th century radical politics. That said, these writings are a fascinating read, and this collection is well worth hunting out. I'll link my forthcoming piece on Winstanley here on publication.

Related Reviews

Berens - The Digger Movement in the Days of the Commonwealth
Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - Liberty Against the Law

Gurney - Gerrard Winstanley
Manning - Aristocrats, Plebians and Revolution in England

Ann Leckie - Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice and its sequels have been showered with praise. They've won a bunch of rewards and rave reviews from almost everywhere. So I was disappointed to find that I found the first in the series very difficult. Part of the problem is that in sections of the books the characters are split into multiple persons. Each of these carries, and communicates with the others, yet retains an independence from the whole. It must have been hell to write, but its hell to follow. I'm wary of spoiling it for future readers, but I could not work out at points who was who.

Leckie's ideas deserved better. The idea of a former Ship's AI, used to having sensory input from thousands of simultaneous sources and being simultaneously in numerous different locations, suddenly reduced to a single entity could have been brilliant. But I found the pacing, the characterisation and the dialogue wooden and unbelievable. Clearly Ann Leckie has dozens of fans, but I almost gave up on several occasions, and I won't be getting hold of the sequels. Nice cover art though.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Chris Fisher - Custom, Work and Market Capitalism: The Forest of Dean Colliers 1788-1888

Over the last year I've reviewed a number of books that look at the impact of the transition from feudalism to capitalism on ordinary people. A number of these are well known works such as Christopher Hill's Liberty Against the Law or the more recent Rethinking the Industrial Revolution by Michael Zmolek. Chris Fisher's book is less well known and deals with a relatively small geographical area and an unusual set of economic circumstances. This however does not diminish its importance for those trying to understand the development of the capitalist mode of production, and in particular, what that meant for the rural population.

In the 17th and 18th century, the Free Miners of the Forest of Dean had, or believed they had, a set of rights handed down from the distant past, to use the forest and its natural resources for themselves. While they were coal miners, they also needed the wood from the forest for fuel and for the building of the mines and the land also provided food, grazing and other opportunities.

In turn they paid taxes to the Crown for the right to work. The miners were fiercely protective of their situation. Those from outside the Forest were known as "foreigners" and could not easily become part of the mining community - having to serve a seven year apprenticeship unlike the two year term from those born in the Forest. The rights that they fought for were written down in the curiously named "Book of Dennis" from an inquisition in 1610 and listed "what the Customs and ffranchises hath been that were granted out of minde and after in tyme of the Excellent and redoubted Prince King Edward unto ye miners of the fforreste of Deane". It asserted the right to mine "every soyle of the King's of which it may be named and alsoe of all other folke without withsaying of any man". Other rights, such as the building of roads to facilitate this work were also listed.

Chris Fisher argues that two rights in particular became controversial in the nineteenth century. The first was the limitations on "foreigners" and secondly the right the miners had to be tried before their own courts within which no foreigner could take part. These courts judged internal matters, but also "limited entry to the industry". These rights severely limited the ability of outside interests to profit from the natural resources of the Forest of Dean. As Fisher explains,
The free miners' rights were use rights not real estate: they accrued to individuals and were contingent upon birth in a defined area and work in the mines for a defined period. The individual who met those tests had the right to use the coal, to dig it up and sell it, but could not alienate the right from himself or transfer its benefits to others.
A capitalist sinking a pit had no guarantee that someone else would not sink another so close to his own as to render both worthless. For foreigners and Crown alike it was desirable that the free miners' claim to an exclusive right to the coal be eliminated altogether.
Thus Parliament began a process to undermine and eliminate the ancient rights. They began with an Act in 1838 that subtly altered who had the right to mine in the Forest and "recognised property rights". This fundamentally changed how the Forest could be used. There were other strategies too. Missionaries were sent into Forest communities from about 1800, a process of "religious colonisation". This led to important changes, as one group of Methodists colliers wrote:
We no longer lay claim to his Majesty's timber or deer, nor do we attack and murder his keepers. The rising plantations grown unmolested and our neighbours' flocks graze around us unassailed. 
Many however did not agree to the changes and there was a long process of resistance. This included protests, petitions, riots and the pulling down of enclosures and fences. Some miners, Fisher points out, did want change and supported the building of railways to facilitate mining, others were violently opposed. One thing is particularly notable though. As capitalist methods of mining and employment increased within the Forest, anger at the consequences of wage slavery meant many saw the old rights in a new way, and began to struggle for their restitution. A major riot in 1831 for instance in the context of national struggles for reform, was "first and foremost, an attempt top reassert against the crown what the miners believed to be their rights in the Forest". A contemporary news report put it "the war word, as usual, is the restitution of rights, which the foresters complain have been wrested from them by the Crown".

These struggles continued for decades. The latter half of the book focuses on the fight by the miners to establish trade unions and win better pay and conditions. But the backdrop to all of this was the need for the Crown to replace the old rights with new ones that allowed it to be "unhindered in dealing with its properties through sale, lease or any other form of use for profit". This mean "changing the basis of property ownership in the Forest". Fisher argues that this was a struggle by the Crown in which the State was an autonomous actor, he argues
It would be misleading to see the process of change in the Forest as one in which a capitalist class of coal-owners, or a State servile to them, unilaterally, re-ordered affairs to their own advantage. The State had its own properties and interests to defend and they were separate from those of the [coal owners].
I think this is a misunderstanding of the role of the state in society. Instead the state is the embodiment of ruling class interests. This is not to say there is a clear set of priorities agreed by the whole ruling class, but that they do have a common interest. The destruction of rights and the creation of a system that facilitated profit was one that united the coal-owners and the Crown. The State was not a separate entity balancing this with the interests of the miners, rather it ruthlessly helped drive the change through.

Over time this changes, and some miners' may have bought into the new order out of frustration with the status quo, or a desire to improve their lot. Fisher highlights the changes "The Earlier quarrel was about which principles should govern the ownership and exchange of properties. The later was about the distribution of property and profits". Fisher is absolutely right to conclude however, that whatever the basis for some of the changes the ordinary people felt they were being robbed, and were prepared to resist. This "gave a force to talk about working-men's representation and about the inequalities of British society which might not otherwise have been made".

The struggle to defend customary rights illuminates to aspects to the history of capitalist development. It shows the very different ways that pre-capitalist society could organise, and how the new order would drive through change in the interests of a new, minority class. These changes came as a major shock to the mass of ordinary people who, as in the case of the Forest of Dean colliers, often reached back into their own histories and their own interpretation of their rights for ammunition to resist. Thus these struggles were simultaneously about shaping the new order, while looking backwards. But things could never be return to how they were, though the future could be written in new ways.

Chris Fisher's book is a detailed look at a near forgotten part of that history. Its focus on a small part of British geography and history, in a unusual set of circumstances, actually illuminates wider changes. It is to be recommended to those trying to understand what capitalism has done to our communities and how our ancestors resisted.

Related Reviews

Hill - Liberty Against the Law
Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Hay etc - Albion's Fatal Tree
Linebaugh - The London Hanged
Linebaugh - Stop Thief
Thompson - The Making of the English Working Class

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

GRAIN - The Great Climate Robbery

GRAIN is a non-profit campaigning organisation that supports small farmers, peasant movements and fights for a more socially just agricultural food system. It has been at the forefront of these movements and has produced some important studies into the nature of modern agriculture and how that impacts on farmers, communities and the wider ecological systems. As such this book is a welcome addition to the literature that is attempting to understand how modern agriculture drives climate change and is impacted by it.

Agriculture today is a prime driver of environmental destruction.
Food is the world's biggest economic sector, involving more transactions and employing more people by far than any other. These days food is prepared and distributed using enormous amounts of processing, packaging and transportation, all of which generation GHG emissions... With transportation accounting for 25 per cent of global GHG emissions, we can use the EU data to conservatively estimate that the transport of food accounts for at least six per cent of global GHG emissions.
GRAIN continue by highlighting the waste of the agricultural systems, the emissions from processing, packaging, deforestation, and way that the destruction of soil is helping driving climate change.
A wide range of scientific reports indicate that cultivated soils have lost between 30 per cent and 75 per cent of their organic matter during the 20th century, while soils under pastures and prairies have typically lost up to 50 per cent. There is not doubt these losses have provoked a serious deterioration of soil fertility and productivity, as well as worsening droughts and floods.... it can be estimate that at least 200 to 300 billion tonnes of CO2 have been released to the atmosphere due to the global destruction of soil organic matter. In other words, 25 per cent to 40 per cent of current excess of CO2 in the atmosphere comes from the destruction of soils and its organic matter.
GRAIN argue that what needs to happen is a complete transformation of the food system in a way that puts the "world's small farmers" back in the driving seat and limits the influence and power of the massive agricultural corporations that push fossil fuel intensive monoculture farming as the alternative. GRAIN writes that there are three shifts that need to occur:
The first is a shift to local markets and short-circuits of food distribution, which will cut back on transportation and the need for packaging, processing and refrigeration. The second is a reintegration of crop and animal production, to cut back on transportation, the use of chemical fertilisers and the production methane and nitrous oxide emissions generated by intensive meat and dairy operations. And the third is the stopping of land clearing and deforestation...
But this is not a manifesto for "eat local". GRAIN understand that the changes needed involve the complete transformation of the food system and a struggle against the multinationals. This is not simply about individuals eating better, but requires "a structural scaling back of 'Big Food' and 'Big Retail' and those who finance them". Interestingly GRAIN also do not fall into the trap that has become all to prevalent within the environmental movement recently in arguing that everyone needs to stop eating meat to save the planet.

The scale of corporate influence is enormous. Since the 1960s, an area roughly the size of the European Union has been given over to just four crops, soybean, oil palm, rapeseed and sugarcane. But these crops are not about feeding people, they are about maximising "return on investment". In contrast, despite the pressures from corporate farming, small farmers continue to provide most of the food that people need. Partly because they are more productive when compared to monocropped giant farms, and partly because they are focused on feeding local communities, not maximising profits. GRAIN conclude:
The data shows that the concentration of farmland in fewer and fewer hands is directly related to the increasing number of people going hungry each day.
Most of this book focuses on the way that the interests of the food multinationals is facilitated and protected by national governments and international legislation. An emphasis on the increase in free trade and removing barriers to the operation of corporations dominates legislation such as TTIP. The World Bank, the IMF and other institutions have driven policies in the last forty years that have decimated small farmers in the interests of multinationals. In several of these essays GRAIN explores how this has taken place. Excellent chapters on REDD+ and GMOs show how feeding the world and reducing emissions has become secondary to profits. Indeed, despite claims that neo-liberal policies would reduce malnutrition and ensure food security, the opposite has happened:
global supply chains make consumers more susceptible to food contamination. A small farm that produces some bad meat will have a relatively small impact. A global system built around geographically concentrated factory-sized farms does the opposite: it accumulates and magnifies risk, subjecting particular areas to industrial-style pollution and consumers globally to poisoned products.
This book covers an extraordinary amount of ground, and my copy is covered in highlights and pencil markings. In terms of a polemic against the role of corporate power in the agricultural system, and an emphasis on the importance of bottom up farming, it's one of the best I've ever read. I did feel that it was limited in an argument about what can be done. For instance, I felt that some more detailed examples of the way that, even within the limits of the capitalist system, peasant struggles for food sovereignty and over land ownership can bring real victories would have been useful. Ending corporate influence will however mean much more than a few such victories - it will mean dismantling the multinationals and the governments that support them. Campaigning against TTIP and other trade "deals" is important, but we must go further. Increasingly as capitalism leads us towards climate disaster, our movements will have to challenge the system, rather than just the symptoms. This is the logical conclusion of GRAIN's detailed work, but it isn't reflected within the book.

I wish I had had a chance to read The Great Climate Robbery when writing my own piece on Food, Agriculture and Climate Change for International Socialism. In that piece I tried to explore further how workers and peasants might struggle for a more sustainable food system. GRAIN's work underlines the importance of that struggle and I encourage people to read it.

Support independent left-wing publishing and book selling. Buy The Great Climate Robbery here.

Related Reviews

Angus - Facing the Anthropocene
Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For
Magdoff & Tokar - Agriculture and Food in Crisis

McMahon - Feeding Frenzy
Lymbery - Farmageddon

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christopher Hill - Liberty Against the Law

How did the rise of capitalism in England affect those communities whose lives were not previously dominated by the capitalist mode of production? What did the ruling class need to do to ensure that private property was protected from those who had little or none? How did people try to resist, or adapt to these changes? These are the important themes in Christopher Hill's book Liberty Against the Law.

Hill argues that for capitalism to develop the system, or rather those within the system who governed and ruled it, needed to put in place a set of laws and regulations that undermined old traditions, laws and customs which dated back to "time immemorial" and impose a new set of rules that better fitted the new order.

An infamous example of this, studied at length in a number of chapters here, was the 1723 "Black Act". This Act criminalized poaching and severely restricted the rights that the rural population had to utilize the free nature that was around them - from the hunting of deer and rabbits to the wider use of the forests. This act, Hill argues, was "part of a single policy, consequent on Parliament's victory of 1688-9, of making the world safe for English merchants and landlords to increase in wealth and so to contribute to the new power of the English state".

The victory of Parliament over the Crown was crucial as it meant that the new ruling class, dominated by the interests of merchants and landowners, could set about constructing a new order that benefited them and as Hill argues, "the most important liberty to be defended was the sanctity of private property". But while Parliament changed laws that benefited those with property, it refused to abolish those rules that hit the poor.

Parliament refused to abolish tithes; big landowners voted security of tenure for themselves by abolishing feudal tenures and the Court of Wards but specifically refused to grant similar security to copy-holders. Such changes in the law as occurred between 1641 and the early eighteenth century increased popular hostility towards it. Why should the lower classes respect laws which asserted property rights against traditional popular customs in the villages?

At the same time, the countryside was being transformed in the interest of capital and landowners. Enclosure was consolidating land into the hands of the wealthier section of the population. Peasants were being driven off their traditional lands and common rights were being destroyed. Villages were increasingly polarised. Not everything was down to economics, but all of it had a common aim, the recreation of society in the image best suited to capitalism. Acts enforced a particular type of marriage, over the relative freedom hitherto enjoyed by the rural poor. Nature was commodified, land parcelled up.

Resistance took many forms. Riot, protest, petition were all common, as were songs and ballads that denounced the new order. Radicals interpreted the bible and then fought for the right to worship in their own way. Pirates replaced the violence and terror of the Navy with the liberty and democracy of self-organised vessels. Smugglers (poor man's pirates) avoided tax and helped keep prices low for the poor. Poachers risked judicial murder to provide cheap meat for their families and communities, and on occasion, fought pitched battles with the hired thugs of capital. Hill studies all these groups and charts popular attitudes through the poetry, plays and songs of the times. It's a fascinating examination of the period, perhaps merely a century in length, when the capitalist state was created and consolidated.

Related Reviews

Hill - The World Turned Upside Down
Hill - God's Englishman

Hill - The Century of Revolution
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Monday, December 19, 2016

Ian Birchall - The Spectre of Babeuf

The story of the French Revolution has been the subject of countless books and articles, but the story of Gracchus Babeuf has rarely been told in the English language, so this reprint of Ian Birchall's 1997 book looking at the French revolutionary is enormously welcome.

Babeuf was, in his own words, "born in the mud" and was approaching his thirties when the Revolution broke out. In the political and economic instability of the era, Babeuf began to develop his own radical ideas. A voracious reader, Birchall explains that a key influence for Babeuf, and many other radicals at the time, was the French thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Babeuf began to go much further, and his ideas develop in ways that few others would take for many years. For instance Babeuf's views on women's equality which were rooted in his deep commitment to "human equality" where far ahead of other thinkers at the time:
Babeuf's belief in the equality of women, and his insistence that the differences between the sexes were rooted in education, not nature, set him apart from almost all the other thinkers of the revolutionary period... who stuck much more closely to Rousseau's belief in the subordination of women. It is not simply chance that Babeuf's considerations on women and collective farms should come in the same letter. By proposing collective production he was breaking with the model of the family as a unit of production... It was this... that enabled him to envisage the true equality of women.
Another example is Babeuf's firm and principled position on anti-Semitism, setting himself apart of many others at the time.
Time "to shake off the fanatical prejudices which for so long have made this peaceful people the unfortunate victim of persecutions by all sects".
Through his writings and his (mostly short-lived) newspapers, Babeuf began to build up a network of other radicals who were, to a greater or lesser extent, linked to his own ideas. Some of these would help to form the basis for the famous "conspiracy of the equals", a still-born attempt to take the Revolution to a new level in the aftermath of the Terror. Babeuf's vision was a world of freedom and equality, an era of "common happiness".

I was struck by the parallels with another great, and often forgotten revolutionary - Gerrard Winstanley. Both of them were revolutionaries who were developing their own independent ideas in the midst of periods of great social and political upheaval. Both were self-taught and both felt that their revolutions had stalled, or failed to go far enough. As a result, both attempted to take things further - Winstanley through a piece of direct action designed to usher in a new order; Babeuf through a conspiracy designed to transform the top of the revolution and pull the rest of the population in behind. Missing for both Winstanley and Babeuf was the "agency" that could radically change society.

Birchall points out that Babeuf was "clearly groping towards a concept of class struggle, although often he saw it merely in terms of rich and poor". Unlike Winstanley though, Babeuf did live when there was a growing section of society, the working class, who would become the force that could create a new world. But though the workers collectively weren't yet strong enough they did play a significant role in events during Babeuf's lifetime. It's noticeable, for instance, that Babeuf's writings were popular among some of the larger factories.

Because the workers were not yet a class for themselves, Babeuf did not yet have the language of class struggle that later thinkers like Marx and Engels would develop. But he clearly was groping his way towards it. There is a lovely quote from Babeuf that Birchall uses which gives us an indication of where Babeuf was heading. Among supporters of the French Republic there were two groups:
One wants the republic of a million, which was always the enemy, the dominator, the extortionist, the oppressor, the leech of the twenty-four million others; the million which has revelled for centuries in idleness, at the expense of our sweat and labour; the other party wants the republic for these twenty-four million, who have laid the foundations and cemented them with their blood, who nourish and support the fatherland, supply all its needs, and defend it and die for its safety and glory.
Elsewhere Birchall points out Babeuf was coming to view a future society that was moving away from the "Communism of Distribution" that characterised the Utopia of visionaries like Winstanley, towards a "Communism of Production" that would be closer to that of 19th and 20th century revolutionaries. As one of Babeuf's contemporaries summarised,
What do we mean by community of labour? Do we want all citizens to be tried to the same occupations? No; but we want the various tasks to be divided so as to leave not a single able-bodied person idle; we want the increase in the number of workers to guarantee public abundance, while diminishing individual effort; in return we want everyone to receive from the nation enough to satisfy their natural needs and the small number of artificial needs that all can satisfy.
Babeuf's conspiracy of the equals was stopped before it went anywhere. Birchall argues that it was much better planned and organised, and supported than many historians have given credit for. Certainly Babeuf and his co-conspirators, came close to winning the case that ultimately led to the execution of some of the revolutionaries. Sadly Babeuf is probably remembered too often for this conspiracy, in which he displayed some niavety and was the culmination act or a group of radicals who did not yet understand the ability of the working class to change the world, and themselves, but operating in a world were the working class had not developed enough.

But Babeuf deserves to be remembered for so much more. In fact, as the author points out, the tragedy is that Babeuf was executed in 1797 at only 36. Where his thinking and political activism had gone had he not been found guilty of conspiracy we can only speculate, but reading this biography one feels that it might have been quite profound. Nonetheless, as Ian Birchall's excellent book shows us, we still have much to learn from the revolutionary life of Gracchus Babeuf.

Related Reviews

Birchall - Tony Cliff: A Marxist for his Time
Birchall - A Rebel's Guide to Lenin
McGarr & Callinicos - Marxism and the Great French Revolution
Jaures - A Socialist History of the French Revolution

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Andrew Charlesworth - An Atlas of Rural Protest in Britain 1548-1900

Rebecca rioters in 1843
This short "atlas" describing rural protests is a surprisingly useful book for those trying to understand the dynamics of protest in Britain's rural areas and, in particular, how communities responded to the development of the capitalist mode of production and the changes that took place in the countryside as a result. The book is broken up into small sections, many authored by key historians of the subject. In fact many of the authors within have had other works reviewed on this book, or have written key texts on their subject I'll get around to sooner or later. Some of the links are below.

The book focuses on what are described as "direct collective action", such as mass protests, food riots, demonstrations and so on. These range from riots against high prices of food, to demonstrations against militia recruitment and turnpikes. The book covers many forgotten events (who today has heard of the Midlands Revolt of 1607, or the 1596 rising?) but sometimes is short on detail. One thing that does come across though is that despite the beliefs of the authorities at the time or often simple analysis by historians since, most rural "direct collective action" was not simply blind rage and frustration and landowners or the wealthy. Many of the protests were heavily organised attempts to protect the interests of the mass of the rural population, to fight unjust laws and pricing, or even to protest at symbols of wealth that represented the enforced changes communities were experiencing.

One of the latter examples is the sustained protests that took place from 1640 to 1740 which targeted deer parks. In part these were protests against the loss of land or access to common rights. But mostly:
Where forest communities opposed the presence of deer parks, they were resisting the social and economic repercussions of landscapes created for pleasure and social prestige. Indeed, deer parks were singled out for attack immediately before and during the Civil War partly because they were symbols of aristocratic power.
These protests often involved hundreds of individuals and lead to the loss of thousands of deer. Many of the parks never recovered.

While the book has much of interest and is a good summary of events like the Rebecca Riots or the Swing protests, I found the maps confusing and of little use - not least because they were often based on limited knowledge. That said, this is a key work for those, like myself, immersing themselves in this topic.

Related Reviews

Turner - Enclosures in Britain 1750 - 1830
Hunter - Set Adrift Upon the World

Sharp - In Contempt of All Authority
Yerby - The English Revolution and the Roots of Environmental Change

Sutton - Food Worth Fighting For