Review of Nine Days that Shook England by H. Fagan

The Peasant's Revolt


Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 12, December 1938, pp.768-769 (933 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

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Nine Days that Shook England by H. Fagan. (Gollancz. 7s. 6d.).

This is an important and an outstanding book. Mr. Fagan has succeeded better than any of his predecessors who have attempted to write history for the people; he has combined mastery over detail and a living sense of the revolutionary traditions of the English people, with that broad understanding and insight that Marxism alone can give.

“Explanations” of the Peasants’ Revolt among our academic historians have been many and ingenious; after all it is the kind of thing that takes a good deal of explaining away if you happen to be a respectable member of one of those famous institutions for giving the polish to the English ruling class. The Black Death, the raids of the Scots and the French have been allotted a major part of the blame. There is one well known economic historian who suggests that what was really the matter was that the peasants were far too well off and got rather uppish. Across the centuries class speaks to class.

Mr. Fagan has gone right through this veil of hypocrisy. He has allotted their correct place to these immediate factors as leading to a progressive development of the political consciousness of the peasantry and the masses of the people. The ransom money and the loot of the French wars acted as a solvent upon existing social relationships (p.21). The French war produced a class of financiers whose shameless exploitation of everything from the major economic resources of the nation to the lust of a senile monarch ranged every class against them as they “battled over who should plunder England” (pp.29-41, 80-3, 97). The revival of old forms of feudal exploitation in the labour shortage after the Black Death and the attempt to starve the people in real earnest by the Statute of Labourers (pp.57ff); the blatant class enactment of the Poll Tax when politics “became a matter of bread as never before” (pp.95, 121) - all went to steel a revolutionary temper among diverse sections of the population which had been long in coming to the surface.

But rightly Mr. Fagan sees this as the product of a slow and unseen social transformation which was breaking down the old feudal economy. He goes straight to the point. The peasant is “the Atlas of feudal society” (pp.14, 17), and the position of the peasantry is changing. The growth of commerce and industry is producing a growing class of merchants and artisans; it is also changing the face of rural England, Lords are becoming producers for the market, either by increasing the rate of feudal exploitation (pp.13-14), or by commuting labour services for money rents and becoming themselves capitalist farmers (p.18). And many of the peasantry are becoming commodity producers and a division appears between those who are building larger holdings for commercial agriculture and those who are slipping downward towards the ranks of the proletariat. Capitalism is appearing within feudal society, little developed as yet, but becoming more and more conscious when subjected to the double exploitation of feudal lords and the war financiers. These social changes are reflected in the growing power of knights and burgesses in the House of Commons, and in the developing attack on feudal ideology as enshrined in the sanctuaries of the Holy Catholic Church - the greatest and most reactionary of feudal landowners.

The revolt is a revolt of an alliance of classes - of capitalist farmers, enterprising peasants, artisans, workers, depressed villeins, smaller merchants. Mr. Fagan’s Marxist analysis of the position of each of these classes in society is essential for any real understanding of the scale of the struggle and the reasons for its ultimate failure. The imperfect coalescence of these diverse groups at this stage produces the contradictions which he has described so well, between egalitarian and capitalist ideas, between the political conscious¬ness of the Great Society and the “economism” and localism of the less advanced sections of the peasantry, as these appear in the programmes of the rebellion.

On these rocks the ship of revolution foundered. But its lessons remain, and that is what makes Mr. Fagan’s book so important for every member of the Labour Movement to-day. There are a few small errors; he might have made more use of Lenin’s great work on The Development of Capitalism in Russia. But these are small criticisms beside what Mr. Fagan has done. The History of the Great Society can show us many things - that from the very first an organised vanguard of the revolutionary forces was a natural and essential part of the development of the popular movement, that its finest leaders had that deep trust in the masses which is the foundation upon which any popular movement must be based.

And throughout the watchword is unity:

It was their coming together in a great mass which had changed them. Alone and isolated they were helpless.... but merged into one vast body.... they had changed. Unity had changed the bent and submissive figure of the serf into the upright stance of the fighting man, carving out his future with his strong right hand …. nailing his demands upon the doors of the mighty lords with the swarming flights of arrows, shattering stout castle walls with the great blows of combined strength. Against the might of that combined force all that was powerful became powerless.

Let that lesson of the revolutionary past of the English people come home to-day. Once again wide sections of the people are being drawn into action against a ruling oligarchy; they are waiting for a lead that can come only from the working class, because there is to-day, as there was not in 1381, a dominant class that can take the leadership in the struggle. Let the leaders of the labour movement have faith in the labouring class that the dream of John Ball may become at last reality.