Thursday, July 25, 2019

Mick Reed & Roger Wells – Class, Conflict & Protest in the English Countryside 1700-1880

The early 1980s saw intense debates among scholars studying rural social history in England. This volume brings together some of the key articles from these debates, which while frequently intense and polemical were always insightful. For non-specialists, the key debates might seem somewhat esoteric – they focus on the nature of social protest and the different contexts in which protest took place. But these debates are of more than specialist interest as they are really about how people protest. I was often reminded, while reading these essays, of Marx and Engels’ dictum that class struggle is sometimes visible and at other times hidden. Protest is not always the highly visible struggle of strikes, riots and insurrection.

The book is framed by two essays that put forward a study of contemporary rural studies. In the opening essay by Mick Reed, he argues that rural history has been limited by mistaken framing of key concepts. He also shows how, in the period covered, the traditional social relations in the rural village were breaking down. A transition from a more collaborative economy (and there are some fascinating examples of cashless economies) to ones were capital (and capitalism) dominated. This is not to say there wasn’t class struggle – far from it, but Reed argues that class itself is complicated, so class struggle is more complex:
Class is not about opposition and antagonism – and of course, power. But there are no simple lines of cleavage that can separate classes into opposing and antagonistic camps.
Here Reed is getting to the heart of the debate that is developed in the essays. I don't agree 100 percent here, because there are simple lines of cleavage between classes – that’s their relationship to the means of production - which is what leads to class struggle. But Reed is correct in that in the period discussed some of these relationships are being crystallised out and so class struggle itself can be much more complex than relations in rural situations than in urban areas or industrial environments in the period considered. As the essays in this volume that deal with the Captain Swing insurrections of 1831 show some farmers (who were a capitalist employing class) sided with the mass of the rural labourers, because they shared some interests (eg the abolition of tithes).

The opening essay by Roger AE Wells (1979) generated much of the debate that followed. Wells argues that “covert” protest, by which ne and other historians meant protest done under cover of anonymity – threatening letters, arson - not hidden protests that might not be recorded (mumbling in pubs, or brief work stoppages) – was the principle form of protest between 1700 and 1850. This was not, he emphasises, “political radicalism” in the sense of Chartism, but rather ongoing struggle against the reality of agriculture work and the changes to farming – such as the changes to traditional employment terms.

Andrew Charlesworth responds (1980) by arguing that Wells “neglected the social component of that process: the changes in the daily lives of the agriculture labourers that emphasised for them their new condition as a proletariat, as a group separate from the employers.” He emphasises the importance of the “open” village, free of landlord control and containing much more diverse groupings of labourers and small artisans separate from the “patriarchal web of control of the farmhouse and the ‘close’ village.” Thus, for Charlesworth, the explosion in collective struggle by labourers as a class was far more important than incidents such as “threatening letters and arson” and represented “overt, direct collective action”.

It is tempting here to follow Charlesworth over Wells, if only because collective action such as strikes clearly left much more of a mark on the rural proletariat even if they didn’t leave quite so much fear in the minds of the landowners and farmers. But Charlesworth ignores the point that Marx and Engels makes – not all class struggle is overt. I tend to agree more with J.E. Archer’s point when he argues that Charlesworth and Wells don’t actually agree with each other on what makes up “covert protest”. He is right to highlight that “Well’s conception of social protest is somewhat broader than Charlesworth’s”. Indeed, he continues by pointing out that much covert and overt struggle (defined loosely as arson and strikes) did tend to co-exist even if one dominated. Archer writes:
Labourers and rural working-class communities appear to have been quite selective in their choice of tactics when furthering a dispute. For example, disputes over charity rights and enclosures usually produced mass meetings and demonstrations in the full light of day and in full view of the police…. Examples… show how overt protest existed alongside covert unrest... In 1844 a year renowned for incendiarism, the village of Snettisham (Norfolk) experienced a serious enclosure dispute. Arson was not employed by the protesters, but instead, they took to felling a large number of trees on the disputed land despite the presence of a large body of heavily armed police.
A further essay by Dennis Mills and Brian Short, undermines Wells’ reliance on the “open-closed” model of the countryside to model locations and types of struggle. These two authors point out that Wells’ own research is highly restrictive to a single parish (Burwash, Sussex). In discussing the nature of protest they uncover some fascinating examples of collective action in agricultural communities – eg the mass leaving of workers at the same time at ends of contracts to punish a bad employer. These lead Mills and Short to argue:
Conflict extends beyond the category of protest success and failure are not to be measured I a schematic way; existence within the social formation of groups other capital and labour allows the possibility of alliances between different groups on specific issues and the mediation of class and power relations by these groups.
In other words, class struggle is much more dynamic and complex than many of the authors suggest – even in, for instance, one closed village “below the surface of the ‘necessarily subservient village there was resistance by an ‘underground’, and almost all men were poachers, whose motivation, amongst other things, was ‘to get even with squires and games laws as well as with ‘Church and State’.  They continue “equally important, conflict occurred within employer’ worker relationships in both open’ and ‘closed’ villages.”

What to conclude from these debates? Firstly, it is clear that simplistic models that assume particular social relationships based on ownership of land (closed versus open villages) do not hold up to scrutiny. Secondly, class struggle and protest is far more diverse than a simple dichotomy of arson or strikes. Thirdly, the particular nature of relations in the English countryside could lead to dynamic alliances between different classes. Finally, the development of class consciousness amongst the rural working class meant that struggle took many forms, but just as with the urban workers, it was near constant. Outbreaks of overt (or covert) struggle might make the headlines, but represented a peak in struggle rather than its appearance out of nowhere.

It is interesting to see all these essays together. Roger Wells’ final, lengthy, essay brings together many different aspects of rural protest, but what I got most from was the interaction between the different authors which might not have been quite so illuminating if only reading them as individual papers in different journals. This book is likely however, to remain a specialist one for students of rural protest, which is a shame as there is much of interest for those trying to understand how, why and when workers fought and the forgotten history of resistance.

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