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Flame of Freedom

(March 1975)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.76, March 1975, p.37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Flame of Freedom
Clifford Lindsey Anderson
Bailey Bros & Swinfer, £1.50

Rural Discontent in 19th Century Britain
J.P.D. Dunbabin
Faber, £6.50.

IF the great rebellion of 1381 had not taken place, hardly anyone would have troubled to explore contemporary court, manorial and legal records to chart its extent and quality. Nor, probably, would more recent researchers like Professor Rodney Hilton have bothered to document the centuries-long struggle of the English peasants and craftsmen for enfranchisement from an oppressive alien feudalism.

How smoothly, too, in the absence of major rebellion, would the learned lackeys of the status quo have explained the crumbling away of feudal servitude and the apparently inexplicable emergence into the open of the long subjugated English people and their native culture. It would have been said that feudalism passed because of the spread of trade, or the rediscovery of classical learning, or the circulation of liberal ideas, or the opening up of the new world, or economic change – to one or all of them, but never, never, to the action of the people themselves.

Small wonder that the great rebellion persists in obtruding on our thoughts and preoccupations. In the last twelve months or so, the opera Wat Tyler has had a belated performance in England for the first time; a play, The Great Rebellion has been seen on the London stage; Professor Hilton’s study of the revolt and its antecedents, Bond Men Made Free, has been published; and now comes another – albeit less learned – book on the subject, Flame of Freedom, a plain, quite short narrative of the event itself, with some fictional embellishments to give it character-interest. The author, Clifford Lindsey Anderson, has already had published, in the same modest format, books on the Norman Conquest, the Wars of the Roses, Tudor England, and the English Civil War, and clearly could have had little time for, adequate original research into so many complex subjects. His sympathies, however, are with rebels not rulers, and, perhaps through lack of time and space, he spares us the ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’, the ‘on the other hands’ and ‘due allowance must be made fors’ of academic historians.

If the 1381 rebellion provides theme and explanation for those scattered, fragmented records of the people’s long struggle for freedom in medieval times, what theme can give point to the numerous inchoate tumults of rural England in the 1800s? This question is prompted by a reading of J.P.D. Dunbabin’s 300-pager, Rural Discontent in Nineteenth Century Britain, a book distinguished by a contribution from Pamela Horn, who writes on Farmworkers’ trade unions in Oxfordshire; and by one from A.J. Peacock who continues his lively and fascinating chronicle of what is here called Village Radicalism in East Anglia – though he strays sometimes beyond the strict historical boundaries of his kingdom to enlarge his references. He shows most convincingly that a rural war raged for long periods in England’s countryside. It is a pity that his brief was limited to the first fifty years of the century.

Mr Dunbabin has himself written the bulk of the book, covering with equal facility and confidence such diverse subjects as The Rise and Fall of Agricultural Trades Unions in England; Hiring Fairs and Farm Servants Combination in Scotland; Northumberland in the 1870s; Tenant Rights in Britain and Ireland; The Crofters’ ‘Land War’; The Welsh ‘Tithe War’; and three sections called Ideas and Arguments in which ideas are scarce, and arguments so judicially balanced as to cancel each other out. Mr Dunbabin has no theme to unify the study of the century’s conflicts nor to give point to it all.

Earlier outbreaks and uproars were, he says, ‘rearguard actions with little prospect of development’. But in later years, when ‘English agricultural labourers, Scottish farm servants, Scottish crofters and Welsh anti-tithers all mounted a major challenge to some aspect of their living conditions’ Mr Dunbabin writes more favourably; for though ‘these challenges were not devoid of elements of reaction ... they all groped towards positive changes.’ They constituted ‘an adaptation by the rural poor to the vast but unnoticed (!) changes of the mid-Victorian years – the spread of railways and of literacy’ and ‘the constant emphasis on sobriety and orderly behaviour’.

What is meant here by ‘an element of reaction’ is nothing less than those exalted, hopeful expectations of drastic change and social overturn which alone might have remedied adequately the conditions of the people, and diverted the nation from the disastrous course along which it was being directed by uncontrolled economic forces, and by its businessmen and politicians. As for those highly-approved ‘challenges’, it seems that they became ‘partially fused’ as the ‘Rural Question’ or so says Mr Dunbabin. To be labelled, boxed and put on a shelf alongside other such boxes, labelled ‘The Labour Question’, ‘The Irish Question’, ‘The Drink Question’ and so on; about which nothing important was ever done, or, ever will be done. Certainly nothing to change basic relationships and circumstances.

What the author means by ‘an adaptation by the rural poor’ to the changes of the time, is simply that the rural poor, too, came to accept – at least outwardly – the predominance in British life of manufacturing industry and commerce; and the inferiority of agriculture as a livelihood and as an industry, doomed to slow extinction. They accepted the role of wage earners, and lowly ones at that; asking merely for a few meagre reforms and improvements in their condition. That this is accepted by our Lefts, as well as by our Rights; and that nothing has been learned from the events of the last seventy, eighty, or hundred-and-eighty years, is truly amazing and alarming.

In between his ‘ideas and arguments’ and ‘buts and ifs’, Mr Dunbabin has gathered from many existing books on the subjects, much information on rural movements in the Nineteenth Century. Students of the period may find it useful But it is unlikely to stimulate a new and much needed rural war.

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