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International Socialism, July 1978


Norah Carlin

Medieval Workers and the Permanent Revolution


From International Socialism, 2:1, July 1978, pp. 43–54.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The existence of workers’ struggles in the Middle Ages is rarely recognised by Marxists. [1] This is a pity, because interesting and often heroic struggles which ought to be part of our tradition have been suppressed. Who now has heard of the Matins of Bruges, the Ciompi, or the workers of Provins who lynched the mayor when he ordered an extension of the working day?

In addition, the suppression of this bit of working-class history has meant theoretical and political distortion of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the theory of permanent revolution. The idea that during a bourgeois revolution the working class must not suspend its own struggles against capitalist exploitation, and may even go on to the first stages of a proletarian revolution, was developed by Marx from 1850 on, despite his initial hesitation in the German revolution of 1848. [2] As early as 1843 he had recognised the germs of proletarian revolution in the Sansculotte movement during the French Revolution of 1789–94. [3]

The crucial importance of the theory of permanent revolution was shown in Russia in 1917, when the working class under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky transformed the half-hearted bourgeois revolution of February into the proletarian revolution of October.

But when a similar situation arose in China in 1925–7, the new Stalinist leadership of the Communist International reversed the theory and insisted that China was ripe only for a bourgeois revolution, pushing the Chinese Communist Party (with their own willing co-operation) into a suicidal alliance with the nationalist Kuomintang. [4] Since then, the situation has arisen again and again, and the same problem posed: in the absence of the material conditions for a socialist society, should the working class support Progressive nationalist’ forces (the nationalist bourgeoisie, new bureaucratic parties, army dictatorships, etc.) or should they struggle against capitalism for a socialist revolution? [5]

An examination of the relationship of workers to the rise of the bourgeoisie in medieval western Europe pushes this problem to its extreme. The bourgeoisie had been only partially successful in revolutionising its own existence, taking over only the cities rather than the whole of society. The material conditions for a socialist society were altogether absent, and there was no revolutionary theory save the millenarian fantasies of some popular heretics. [6] Many of the struggles which took place were confused, involving self-appointed popular leaders from the ruling elite, or guild loyalties which had little or nothing to do with the working class as such.

What is remarkable is that even in this situation there emerges a clear tradition of working class, anti-capitalist struggle which on occasion reached revolutionary dimensions. From the birth of capitalism, the working class opposed its own exploitation, whatever the consequences and however remote the possibility of building an alternative society.

I. Capitalist Manufacture in Feudal Society

The very existence of the working class in feudal society is commonly denied or ignored. It was a society based primarily on agriculture, and most non-agricultural production was carried out by independent craftsmen for a local market only. In small towns and villages everywhere there were artisans who owned their own tools, sold their own products direct to the local and familiar consumer, and came together in guilds for their mutual protection. Each artisan served his time as an apprentice, worked for some years as a journeyman (wage-earner), then set up as a master craftsman himself, employing a few journeymen and apprentices.

But from the late eleventh century onwards, certain towns in Flanders (parts of modern Belgium and France) began to specialise in the mass production of woollen cloth for a wider market, and this led to the growth of a system of manufacture in which the workers were no longer independent craftsmen. Though the skilled workers, such as weavers and dyers, sometimes owned their looms or workshops and employed a few journeymen, they were producing piece-work for large employers who supplied the raw materials and controlled absolutely the sale of the finished product. At the same time there were other, less skilled workers – sorters, washers and carders of wool, stretchers and shearers of the finished cloth – who worked in the large employers’ sheds and workshops . All these workers were producing surplus value at a high rate for capitalists who invested very little in machinery, but because of their monopoly of the market and control of the town corporations were able to pay subsistence wages to a dependent labour force.

In the Flemish textile towns of the thirteenth century, the corporations of rich drapers regulated wages and working conditions. Church bells rang the hours like modern factory hooters, lunchbreaks included; by-laws obliged clothworkers to work by an open door or window, and the drapers’ inspectors patrolled the town in search of idling workers and poor quality work. Workers were supposed to be paid in cash on Saturday evenings, but the truck system and withholding of wages for debt were common. [7]

Where Flanders led, Italy followed, and by the fourteenth century Florence was the major manufacturing town. Weavers there were even more dependent on the merchant clothiers’ guild (the Arte della Lana) than their Flemish counterparts. They were often heavily in debt to the employers, and pledged their looms as security for further loans: the famous painter Giotto was among those who invested their wealth in loans to weavers at 120% interest. The Arte della Lana bought up individual craftsmen’s workshops till it became the owner of most of the stretching and fulling workshops in the city. Craftsmen to whom work was put out were strictly controlled: the penalty for cheating on the quality of a particularly luxurious dye was a £105 fine or the loss of the dyer’s right hand. [8]

Outside Flanders and Italy, the development of capitalist manufacture was less concertrated, though certain English towns in the thirteenth century resembled the Flemish and Italian towns in the intensity of their cloth manufacture and the social conditions in which it was carried out. [9] In many towns throughout Europe, however, the growth of capitalism took a different form: the guilds ceased to be associations of equals, and were divided into a dominant master class and a wage-earning journeyman class. [10]

Independent organisations of the wage-earners were regarded with suspicion by employers everywhere, and often forbidden. The guild organisation allowed for skilled workers in thirteenth-century Flanders was strictly subordinate to the drapers’ guilds, though it soon escaped their control in practice. In Italy even skilled workers were usually not allowed to form guilds. In Florence in 1345 Ciuto Brandini, who tried to organise the wool-carders (Ciompi) and held public meetings, was put to death – the law forbade gatherings of more than six clothworkers, even for religious purposes. [11]

Despite legislation against workers’ associations and strikes, they happened, and when they happened were all the more likely to lead to violence. In Germany in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries journeymen’s associations spread, and inter-city confederations were formed in some trades to fight blacklisting and scabbing. In 1329 the journeymen curriers (leatherdressers) of Breslau resolved to strike for a year for higher wages, and were locked out by the employers. At Douai a series of strikes and combinations from 1245 on led to street-fighting and a social revolution in 1280. At Ypres in 1280 the workers’ guilds called in their members from outlying villages and armed them. Inflation produced by royal currency manipulation in France in 1306–7 led to strikes for higher wages combined with rent strikes in Paris. When the mayor of Provins in 1281 tried to split the masters’ and workers’ opposition to increased taxation by adding an hour to the working day, the workers hanged him and burned his house down. A rise in the price of food in Siena in 1371 led to an illegal combination of weavers for higher wages: they went on to pillage the houses of rich citizens. [12] The public order problem created by capitalism in medieval cities was immense, and undoubtedly one of the reasons why the bourgeoisie began to turn to the absolute monarchy for protection.

II. Democracy in the Cities

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the urban communities of Flanders and Italy, and to some extent France, were fighting for freedom from control by feudal lords and bishops. This was a popular struggle, in which all classes of towns people were frequently involved. The result, however, was not a popular democracy but control by a narrow elite of the merchant and employing class. The various electoral systems of these cities in the thirteenth century have been described as ‘a very complicated machine for a very simple result’: the maintenance of a few families in permanent power. [13]

In Flanders, it was usually the drapers who came to power as a result of struggles involving all the guilds. In Florence it was the popolo grasso (the fat, the rich) who benefited from the struggle against the urbanised nobility in the thirteenth century, while among the popolo minuto (the ‘little men’) the lesser guilds enjoyed only a small share in power and the unorganised workers were left out in the cold altogether.

There was thus plenty of scope for democratic agitation against the ruling elite of the bourgeoisie. Such agitation involved the traditional artisans’ guilds – since local crafts still existed along side the capitalist manufactures – as well as the dependent workers. Though not sharing the class position or economic interests of the textile workers, the artisans were for the most part anti-capitalist. They resented political control by manufacturers profiting from the international market they did not share, and were alarmed by the increasing gulf between rich and poor. Most of the occasions for democratic revolt had a class content: corruption in city government, inequitable taxation (the rich manufacturers preferring indirect taxation, which hit the poor, to any kind of income tax) and food shortages in which the rich were accused of hoarding and of refusing to use their wealth to save their fellow-citizens from starvation.

In France and England in the fourteenth century, changing economic conditions in agriculture fanned the flames of peasant revolt, and there was a link-up between workers’ struggles, peasant rebellion and criticism of royal government by sections of the bourgeoisie and nobility. In the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 there was a strong element of protest by both urban and rural workers against the royal policy of wage regulation which had attempted to keep down wages since the Black Death in mid-century. [14]

But it was in Flanders and Italy that the democratic struggle led most clearly to workers’ revolt, and it is to these that we must turn.

III. Workers’ Revolution in Flanders and Italy

(i) Flanders

The democratic struggle in Flanders from the early thirteenth century was dominated by the clothworkers. At Valenciennes in 1225, the weavers and fullers took the opportunity of the confusion surrounding the appearance of the supposedly resurrected Count Baldwin to depose the town council, seize the wealth of the rich and declare a commune. There were outbreaks of revolt against town elites at Liege in 1253, Dinant in 1255 and Huy in 1299. A conspiracy of weavers and fullers against the sheriffs of Ghent in 1274 led to severe repression and the flight of many workers into neighbouring Brabant. In 1280 democratic revolts broke out in almost all the Flemish towns: at Douai the occasion was the imposition of a new and unpopular tax, at Ypres and Bruges the demands were publication of city accounts and a share in the magistrature for craftsmen and clothworkers. [15]

Some of these democratic revolts had called on the Count of Flanders for help, though in the event this did them no good and they were not saved from further repression following 1280. The response of the Flemish bourgeoisie was to call in on their side the King of France, who invaded Flanders in 1300. Resistance to the French invaders was led by the workers of Bruges under their leader ‘King Peter’, a weaver. Following a massacre of French troops in Bruges by the workers (the ‘Matins of Bruges’).The revolt spread to other towns and at the Battle of Courtrai an army of clothworkers and artisans armed with pikes defeated the cream of the French feudal nobility. [16] The success of the clothworkers against the French gained recognition for their guilds in city government, but they continued to fight against economic domination by the drapers as well. In the course of the fourteenth century the weavers came to power in most Flemish textile towns and increasingly took over the organisation of their own production through the guild mechanism. Their victory was unfortunately dissipated in conflicts with other guilds such as the fullers’, in inter-city rivalry and in involvement with ambitious leaders taking advantage of the political situation resulting from the Hundred Years’ War. But the guilds in this period seem to have been genuine workers’ associations, concerned for their journeymen members’ wage rates and providing social benefits. [17]

By the fifteenth century, however, the master craftsmen in the Flemish guilds had taken over the drapers’ former role – they had themselves become employers, restricting the rights of journeymen members and raising the price of apprenticeship. The struggle for ‘workers’ control’ in the only form medieval workers could conceive it – individual artisan rights and guild power – had resulted in the growth of a new employing class from their own ranks, as had happened in so many other guilds elsewhere. The drapers, meanwhile, had discovered that unorganised rural labour was cheaper in conditions of increased competition with the English cloth trade, and had moved their activities out of the towns. [18]

(ii) Florence

In Florence, the defeat of the workers’ attempts to organise in the 1340s was followed by a period of comparative quiescence, during which the popolo minuto gave their support to a power-sharing regime in which the leaders of the lesser guilds participated. But by 1378 a series of plagues, famines, wars and trading difficulties had undermined the regime, and an outbreak of factional conflict among the magnates threatened all classes.

The revolution which broke out in June 1378 was at first led by the lesser guildsmen, who burned down the palaces of the most objectionable magnates and set up a new government. But the Ciompi (wool-carders and other unskilled workers) eagerly joined in, and their leader, Michele di Lando, played a prominent part in the revolutionary regime. The cloth-workers wanted above all to be freed from their old enemy, the Arte delta Lana. ‘They were,’ one of them confessed under torture, ‘badly treated by the officials of the guild, who punished them for trifles, and by the employers who paid them badly. For a piece of cloth worth twelve soldi they give eight.’ (An indication of the rate of surplus value?)

Three new guilds were created for the unorganised workers and given a place in city government, and reforms were made in the electoral and financial systems. But during July and August the new leaders showed their conservatism: the basic social structure was not changed, the new leaders took on old titles, and Michele di Lando was accused of having sold himself to the rich for a few hundred florins and a suit of noble armour.

The aspirations of the Ciompi grew more radical and egalitarian. ‘We will turn the city upside down; we will kill and despoil the rich men who have despised us; we shall become masters of the city; we shall govern it as we like and we shall be rich,’ are among their recorded remarks.

On 31 August the disappointed Ciompi rose up against the new regime they had helped to establish, and in a terrible day of bloodshed were driven through the streets of Florence by magnates, bourgeois and lesser guildsmen, with the notoriously savage butchers’ guild in the lead.

In the Tumult of the Ciompi, the working class had broken with the democratic revolution, and been bitterly defeated. In the next century, the Italian Renaissance was built up in Florence by an increasingly conservative bourgeoisie who had glimpsed proletarian revolution and preferred oligarchy, the rule of the Medici, and even a flight from trade and manufacture, to that fate. [19]

IV. The Hussites and Historical Necessity

The last great revolution of the Middle Ages in which workers played a leading role was the Hussite rising in Bohemia, which was at one and the same time a religious movement foreshadowing Protestantism, a nationalist revolt of the Czechs against the ruling German minority, and a movement of social protest.

A movement for reform of the Church in Bohemia developed from the 1390s around the figures of Jan Hus and a number of Prague radical preachers. After the execution of Hus by the Catholic Council of Constance in 1415, the university and the burghers of Prague were frightened back into the ‘moderate’ camp and the strongest supporters of reform became the poor of the working-class parishes, where 40% of the population were classified as ‘indigent’.

In 1419–20 the radical preachers led their persecuted followers out of Prague and other towns, together with peasant pilgrims from the surrounding countryside, to found a new society which they called Mount Tabor. Their ideas were chiliastic – they expected the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth, and they expected that kingdom to be a society without private property and exploitation. Private property was abolished among the Taborites and a ‘common chest’ set up.

But the fight of the Taborites against the combined German and Czech supporters of King Sigismund led to the rise of military leaders in their midst, and the triumph of those few craftsmen, burghers and petty nobles who had joined them. Private property was restored, and within a few years tribute was being demanded from the surrounding peasantry who had at first hoped to be relieved of feudal burdens.

The Taborites’ most famous military leader was Jan Zizka, the son of a small Bohemian squire, ex-brigand and former courtier. He crowned his success with the elimination of the most radical groups within Tabor: the followers of Martin Huska, who adhered to the ideal of apostolic poverty; and the Adamites, who set up a revolutionary commune outside Tabor (where their enemies say they renounced clothing and practised free love) and were massacred by Zizka’s troops. [20]

Zizka became, and has remained, a Czech national hero. He has been celebrated as such by Czech historians especially since the ‘revolution’ of 1948, who in trying to combine nationalism with lip-service to Marxism have called upon the concept of ‘historical necessity’. Their use of this concept brings us back to the problem of Marxism and the permanent revolution, for it has been used by ‘Marxists’ of the Stalinist school to justify what others might call historic betrayals, as in China in 1927.

According to these historians, Zizka was right to murder the Taborite radicals because the time was ripe for bourgeois nationalist, and not for proletarian socialist revolution. The historic role of the Taborites was to create the conditions for bourgeois revolution, to ‘shed their blood in the political and class interests of the burghers and lesser nobility’. The radicals ‘had no idea of the social process and they anticipated history by hundreds of years.’ Zizka’s action against the revolutionary poor was ‘unavoidable ... He kept in mind the interests of the whole revolutionary movement.’ [21] Huska and the Adamites failed to appreciate that: ‘The solution to the problem – the political party – could only be realised after the overthrow of feudal society.’ [22]

The contortions of ‘Marxist’ historians on the Hussites are paralleled by their gyrations around the history of the German Peasants’ Revolt a hundred years later. [23] The fact that bourgeois revolutions had yet to occur in Bohemia or Germany for a few hundred years after these events is a minor worry but not a serious obstacle to such analyses. The first thinker to suggest that if the German bourgeoisie could not bring itself to make its own revolution then the working class must go ahead and make an anti-capitalist revolution, was Marx in 1850.

It can hardly be denied that the material conditions for the realisation of a socialist society did not exist in fifteenth-century Bohemia or sixteenth-century Germany. But is it valid to distort and deny the struggles of workers and peasants against their exploiters in the name of historical necessity? The concept appears useful only to those who wish to bludgeon present-day workers into giving up their own struggles.

V. From Manufacture to Modern Capitalism

Medieval manufacture was different in important ways from the capitalist mode of production which emerged during the industrial revolution. Medieval capitalists increased the rate of surplus value they extracted from workers, not by transforming methods of production and introducing new machinery so as to reduce the socially necessary labour time, but simply by using their position of power in the towns to increase the hours and intensity of labour and to drive wages down to the minimum subsistence level.

The expansion of capitalism was also limited in this period by the fact that the towns were as yet only enclaves in feudal society, and depended on feudal agriculture for raw materials, the supply of labour, and markets for their products. There had to be at least the beginning of a breakthrough into capitalist agriculture before capitalism could dominate society as a whole. [24]

But it is clear that the expansion of capitalist manufacture was also limited by the resistance of the workers. The intensity of workers’ struggles in the middle ages drove the bourgeoisie almost to despair. In the sixteenth century many prosperous townsmen sought other outlets for their wealth and energies: landownership in its traditional feudal form, office-holding in the service of absolute monarchies, and the purchase of titles of nobility. [25] The high profits to be made from ‘international trade, plantation slavery in the colonies, and investment in government stocks and bonds in the seventeenth century were other ways of avoiding head-on confrontation with the working class in the struggle for surplus value.

In many places, manufacture moved out of the towns into the countryside, where the employers recruited unemployed and underemployed agricultural labour into the production of textiles, metalwares and other goods. This was easier and cheaper because rural workers often had access to plots of land and common rights which provided them with a partial subsistence, and rural conditions made workers’ organisation more difficult.

But in England, where rural manufacture was most widespread and successful, there was also a strong tradition of resistance to capitalism and wage-slavery. The mass of literary evidence for such attitudes has been taken as proof that the working class, as a class, did not exist in England before the late eighteenth century. [26] But the political evidence, from journeymen Levellers in the revolution of 1649 to the Corresponding Societies of the 1790s, suggests that traditional ‘artisan’ attitudes were a response by workers themselves to encroaching capitalism. [27]

It was in eighteenth-century England that the capitalist class turned to a new method of increasing surplus value, the revolution in technology. Recent inventions were taken up, new ones stimulated, and the workers driven out of domestic production into the factories – where labour discipline could also be intensified at the same time.

The traditional ‘artisan’ resistance to capitalism continued for a time to overlap with the new trade union movement, but the material basis for a new working-class consciousness had been laid. Collective production in the factories made it possible to conceive of collective production under workers’ control and the socialist transformation of society. The old conviction of the medieval heretics that private property – i.e. class society – was only a passing phase in the history of humanity now became more than a dream, it became a material possibility.


In 1946 the French Marxist Daniel Guerin published his interpretation of the popular movement in the French Revolution during the years 1792–1795, in which he argued that the germs of working-class revolution existed within the sans-culotte movement in Paris, in opposition to the pro-capitalist government of the Jacobins. Much of the opposition to his theory has been based on evidence that the working class in Paris fought alongside petty-bourgeois artisans and shopkeepers, and that their social ideas were of a traditional artisan kind – the limitation but not abolition of private property, a society of small producers, and so on. [28]

All the evidence of earlier workers’ struggles cited in this article should suggest that Guerin was right, that the germs of permanent revolution did exist within the French bourgeois revolution, and that this is not a new development but the culmination of a long tradition of anti-capitalist struggle by the pre-industrial working class. Before working-class consciousness in its modern, socialist form was possible, the ‘artisan’ aim of individual worker’s control was the commonest expression of the workers’ opposition to capitalism. From its birth in the middle ages, capitalism has carried within it the seeds of its own destruction, and to deny the permanent revolution is to deny our history as well as our theory.


1. P. Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London 1974), p. 155 (one sentence); B. Hindess and P.Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (London 1975), no references. R. Brenner, The Origins of Capitalist Development: a Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism, New Left Review 104 (1977) pp. 25–92, discusses manufacture but not the working class.

2. Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, Political Writings, vol. 1 (Penguin Books 1973) ed. D. Fernbach, pp. 33–48

3. D. Guerin. La Lutte de Classes sous la Premiere Republique (2nd edn., Paris 1968) pp. 13–22.

4. H. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (2nd revised edn., Stanford 1961).

5. T. Cliff, Permanent Revolution, International Socialism 12 and 61.

6. N. Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium (Paladin edn., 1970) pp. 53–88, 187–197. An unsympathetic treatment – Cohn argues Marxism is a form of collective delusion like medieval millenarianism. Many of the connections he makes between weavers and heresy are now disputed, but the thesis is valuable and the treatment could be turned on its head – there was a lot more sense in medieval heresy than Cohn allows.

7. H. Pirenne, Histoire de Belgique (3rd edn., Brussels 1909–22), vol. I, pp. 267–275. E. Carus-Wilson, The Woollen Industry, Cambridge Economic History of Europe, vol. li, pp. 372–387.

8. Ibid., pp. 387–398.

9. E. Carus-Wilson, Medieval Merchant Venturers (2nd edn., London 1967), pp. 211–238.

10. M. Mollat and P. Wolff, The Popular Revolutions of the Late Middle Ages (London 1973), pp. 47–249.

11. G.A. Brucker, Florentine Politics and Society 1343–1378, pp. 110–111.

12. Mollat & Wolff, op. cit., pp. 247–250, 93–94,47, 136–7. Pirenne, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 377, 380.

13. J. Lestocquoy, Les Villes de Flandres et d’ltalie sous le Gouvernement des Patriciens (Paris 1952), p. 70.

14. Mollat & Wolff, op. cit., pp. 165–208.

15. Pirenne, op.cit., vol. I, pp. 368–385. Mollat & Wolff, op. cit., pp. 44–46.

16. Pirenne, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 405–415, Mollatt & Wolff, op. cit., pp. 58–59.

17. Pirenne, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 55–74.

18. Ibid., pp. 416–450.

19. Mollat & Wolff, op. cit., pp. 142–161. G.A. Brucker, op. cit., pp. 363–396 – but this account breaks off before the events of August.

20. H. Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution (California 1967); J. Macek, The Hussite Movement in Bohemia (2nd edn., Prague 1958); E. Werner, Popular Ideologies in Late Medieval Europe: Taborite Chiliasm and its Antecedents, Comparative Studies in Society and History, II, pp. 344–363; N. Cohn, op. cit., pp. 205–222.

21. Macek, op. cit., pp. 52, 95.

22. Werner, op. cit., p. 363.

23. See A. Friesen, Reformation and Utopia (Wiesbaden 1974), pp. 181–205.

24. R. Brenner, op. cit.

25. F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London 1973), vol. II, pp. 725–734 – the celebrated ‘defection of the bourgeoisie.’

26. C. Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England, pp. 219–238.

27. M. James, Social Problems and Policy during the Puritan Revolution (London 1930) pp. 193–240. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London 1965), p. 262.

28. A. Soboul. The Parisian Sans-Culottes and the French Revolution, 1793–4 (Cambridge 1964), G. Rude, The Crowd in the French Revolution (Oxford 1959).

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