peasants revolt

13th June 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt

Wat Tyler leading the Peasants' Revolt

On this day in 1381, 20,000 peasants and townsmen from Kent and Essex stormed into London, led by John Ball an itinerant priest and Wat Tyler a craftsman. They had come to present the young King Richard II with a set of demands that amounted to the abolition of serfdom, and for two days their rebel forces were in control of the capital.  Ultimately the rebellion was to be betrayed and crushed but their ideas inspired later generations of radicals as the ‘first planting of the tree of liberty’.

Under the feudal system that had operated in England since the Norman Conquest, the life of a serf was one of drudgery and oppression. The majority of the population lived in the countryside at the sufferance of landowners to whom they paid rent in the form of unpaid labour and military service. A small amount of their produce was their own, but could only be milled or processed if they made payments to the landowner. Theoretically a serf could buy himself out of his bondage but the opportunities for any sort of paid labour were severely limited. A rigid social structure was enforced by a legal code that stipulated what clothes a serf could wear and what food could be eaten, but most importantly of all, forbade them to leave their villages.

There was no strong centralised apparatus to enforce this in the modern sense but the feudal state was a three-headed creature: The Church – often a landowner as well – provided ideological legitimacy; the Nobles acted as a form of privatised law enforcement; and the Crown sat in the shadows behind it all. Consequently whilst peasant resentment was aimed at the church and landowners, the king was generally seen as some sort of champion of justice for the common people – an illusion was ultimately to prove the undoing of the revolt.

Ironically it was the Black Death of 1348-9 – the pandemic that killed off a third of the total population – that created the cracks in the system that made rebellion possible. Wide-scale depopulation and a resulting chronic labour shortage gave serfs and craftsmen an opportunity to earn higher wages. An embryonic urban working class was created by peasants leaving their villages and taking up trades in the towns, and there were the first glimpses of a new kind of economic system springing up around the wool trade.

The landowners were rattled by this threat to the social order.  In response a draconian Statue Of Labourers was introduced in 1351 that reinforced the restrictions on serfs and most significantly limited wage levels to pre-plague levels. As a result the next thirty years saw social conflict with peasants, craftsman and merchants forced into an alliance by laws that penalised both worker and master who agreed to higher wages than those specified. At the same time the life of the medieval court, based on lavish conspicuous consumption made increasing demands in terms of taxation. In 1381 the uncle of the teenage king and the effective power behind the throne, John Of Gaunt, raised a poll tax, a flat levy on every person over the age of 15. It was the third such levy in a short number of years, and was to prove the catalyst for rebellion across South Eastern England.

Inspired by hatred of the unfair tax, and regarding the virtual-regent John Of Gaunt as a hate figure the ‘evil councillor’ who had abused the powers of the Crown, crowds of peasants and townspeople gathered in Essex and Kent. Leaders came to the fore although little is still known about their backgrounds or ideology: Wat Tyler – an independent atrtisan with some military experience –  was the man of action, whilst John Ball – a wandering preacher who may have been influenced by the proto-Protestant Lollard sect –  provided ideological leadership. Ball had a biblical view of social justice as the divinely ordained natural order, preaching: “In the beginning all men were created equal; servitude of man to man was introduced by the unjust dealings of the wicked and is contrary to God’s will. For if God had intended some to be serfs and others lords, He would have made a distinction between them at the beginning.” However he was not a revolutionary in any modern sense – he sought recourse for injustices by corrupt nobles and churchmen from the king as God’s appointed judge on earth.

Having gathered at Blackheath and elected Wat Tyler as their leader the rebels march on London to seek a meeting with the king to present their petition. Along the way they destroyed property – although their actions were not indiscriminate; the main target was primarily the destruction of manorial rolls – documents that recorded serfs’ obligations. When they got to London, the homes of particularly hated figures where singled out for looting and destruction – including John Of Gaunt’s Savoy palace. Seeking to keep fighting away from the capital, and with limited military forces available, the young king arranged to meet the rebels at Mile End. There he agreed to the demands to give serfs the right to buy and sell goods and labour, and to provide a general pardon to all rebels.

However this virtual abolition of serfdom was only a cynical attempt to play for time whilst the king actually gathered his forces. At a second private meeting on the 15th June, Wat Tyler was murdered by the Lord Mayor of London William Walworth. Unaware of this, the rebels agreed to disperse and leave London. When they had done so the king immediately renounced his previous promises and having now gathered an army, over the next two weeks defeated the remaining rebel forces in Hertfordshire, Essex and Kent. A month later John Ball was captured and then hanged, drawn and quartered.

Although the rebellion was defeated, feudalism was in terminal decline and by the start of 15th Century had in effect all but been abolished. The costly French  wars played their part in this, as did the emergence of trade and manufacture. But John Ball’s rallying cry ‘When Adam delved and Eve span – Who was then the gentleman?’ endured to inspire later radicals of the English Civil Wars and Victorian socialists. For six hundred years no government would attempt to again introduce a flat-rate poll tax. When she did so in the late 1980’s, Thatcher, like John Of Gaunt before her, would fatally underestimate the anger she unleashed.

[Written by journeyman]

Posted in Dissent, Heroes, Revolution | 5 Comments

31st October 1517 Martin Luther Posts the Ninety-Five Theses

Nailing the Ninety-Five

Martin Luther Nails It

Despite the best efforts of fundamentalists of all kinds to have it otherwise, most of us are products of a generally secular society. This makes it almost impossible for us to conceive of a time when every expression of thought, philosophic, political or cultural, was expressed within the terms of reference of religion. But making that mental leap is precisely what we have to do in order to appreciate quite how revolutionary it was when an unknown German clergyman posted up on a church door his list of grievances against the Catholic Church in 1517. In so doing Martin Luther started a chain of events that would bring the Middle Ages to an end. In truth his was neither the first, nor the most radical, challenge to church authority, but it came at a time of political and social upheaval that gave Luther immense historical significance.

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was the multifunctional organisation at the heart of every aspect of society. Quite apart from being one of the most powerful landowners in Europe, it held the virtual monopoly on knowledge, education and culture, and acted as the arbiter of morality and legitimacy. Luther’s challenge to priestly authority broke this monopoly at a time when Medieval society was starting to fracture politically, socially and economically. For Christians this marks the birth of the Protestant Reformation, and for historians it marks the beginning of Modern Europe.

From a 21st century perspective this upheaval starts with a seemingly technical and narrow argument over the corrupt sale of ‘indulgences’. Indulgences were remissions from God’s punishment issued by the Church in return for charitable works. In reality, in a church riddled with corruption and greed this meant that salvation could be bought by those who had the money to do so. In 1517 Luther, a German friar and scholar published his grievances against these abuses. It set him on a trajectory that would call into question the basis of church authority and of salvation itself. As a result within three years he would be excommunicated by the pope, and a proclaimed an outlaw by the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther might have disappeared from history, like many other previous religious dissidents, had he not had the protection of the Elector of Saxony who had his own grievances with the Holy Roman Empire.

It was whilst under this protection that Luther developed an ideology that would become recognisable as Protestantism. He developed a rationale that every individual was responsible for their own salvation based on a personal relationship with God – what Christians would call ‘faith’ – and not on adherence to a set of practises and observances ordered by a church hierarchy. For Protestants, the source of religious authority did not lie with a church hierarchy but with scripture – which it was both the right and duty of each individual to study in their own language. It was an ideology that was deeply attracted to any group that found itself in conflict with the Medieval establishment and the status quo. And in this respect there was not one but several Reformations.

Within the ruling classes there were those – like the Elector of Saxony – who in their jockeying for power adopted Protestantism as an act of realpolitik to justify wars against their neighbours. For the middle class, the craftsmen and merchants, previously on the margins of medieval society but becoming increasingly powerful, Protestantism promised a very attractive elevation of the free individual. Amongst the peasant masses, Protestantism provided a liberating focus of protest against centuries of Church repression and corruption. For two centuries these peasant masses had found an ideological expression of their grievances in radical religious movements as diverse as the Lollards in England and the Hussites in Central Europe.

In the 1520s a series of peasant revolts again expressed the ideas of Protestantism. The logic of Protestantism suggested a radically different form of church – a free assembly of like-minded individuals. However the implication of removing a church hierarchy was that of also removing a social hierarchy. In 1524 the German peasants expressed this in the Memmingen Charter – an anti-feudal manifesto that called for an end to serfdom and common ownership of land. Munster where the city was under the leadership of radical Protestants a kind of proto-socialist municipality was established, and ruthlessly suppressed by church and spiritual authorities, as were peasant revolts throughout Europe.

However, this kind of radicalism was not at all Luther’s vision of Reformation. Distancing himself from radical groups such as the Anabaptists, Luther made it very clear on which side he stood, declaring ‘better the death of all peasants than of princes and magistrates’. Until his death, Luther lived under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, developing his theology and re-organising the church in Saxony. This new church represented Luther’s compromise between his theology and his distrust of the masses and their radicalism. The result was what came to be known as ‘Lutheranism’ – a protestant theology welded to a reformed church hierarchy. This was very much ‘Reformation from above’.

In many parts of Northern Europe, particularly where the emerging middle classes were strongest, an alliance developed between them and some disaffected elements of the old nobility. They embraced this new form of religion, and derived their power and prosperity not from land ownership but from trade and commerce. This signalled a break with the Middle Ages and heralded the start of a new era, now recognisable as the first stages of modern Capitalism. Sociologist Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism saw an inextricable link between the two.

Luther is not necessarily a character that it is easy to like. Added to his distrust of the masses, he has also been credited as developing a particular German strand of anti-Semitism. However if for nothing else, he deserves to be remembered for his courage in standing up for the primacy of the individual conscience in defiance of seemingly unassailable authority: “I am more afraid of my own heart than of the pope and all his cardinals. I have within me the great pope, Self.”

[Written by journeyman]

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17th March 1921 the Kronstadt Tragedy

Red Army troops charge on Kronstadt

On this day in 1921 after two weeks of siege, a rebellion at the Kronstadt naval base fell to Soviet government forces. Anarchist and sometime Bolshevik-ally Victor Serge described the events as, ‘Seventeen dreadful days, more dreadful than anything I had known in Russia.’ On 7th March, Trotsky as commissar for war had offered the rebel garrison an ultimatum to unconditionally surrender or prepare for assault. The ultimatum was ignored, and the Red Army turned on its own navy. 1,000 rebels were killed outright, 6,000 more captured –some to be summarily executed although many were later freed – and 8,000 more fled to Finland and were subsequently pardoned under a general amnesty. Before the revolt, Kronstadt had acquired a special status in Soviet mythology as the home of those revolutionary sailors whose mutiny had ignited the 1905 revolution, and whose signal shot from the cruiser Aurora had begun the October Revolution in 1917. However, after the suppression of the revolt, the name of Kronstadt was to take on a new significance – and to this day it still constitutes a fault-line between Anarchists and Trotskyists, ironically otherwise united as the opponents and victims of Stalinism.

How did it come to pass that the Bolsheviks turned their guns on these former icons? Civil war had begun even before the revolution with former Czarist generals organizing White armies, but when the Bolshevik government withdrew from the war with Germany the allied powers all sent expeditionary forces to intervene against the new regime. On top of this, long-frustrated nationalisms fractured the former Russian empire into a patchwork of regional warlords. Successive years of drought and disruption to agricultural distribution produced famines, and war damage to the industrial infrastructure reduced production to levels at 20% of 1914 levels. Most of all, the expected imminent revolutions in the industrialized west either never materialized or were crushed – leaving the Soviets isolated to face all these problems on their own.

Against all the odds – literally fighting on all fronts – after five years the infant Bolshevik regime emerged with a precarious victory. But not without a heavy price: The government brought in a policy of ‘War Communism’ with the rapid nationalization of all industry and, most significantly, the requisition of peasant grain surpluses. A period of ‘Red Terror’ curtailed civil liberties and suppressed political opposition.  In cities that had supported the Bolsheviks there were protests against food shortages and rationing, whilst in the countryside there were peasant revolts at the policy of forced requisition – enacted in order to feed the cities. At the start of March 1921, in support of rationing protests in Petrograd, a mass meeting of the sailors’ garrison at Kronstadt voted to agree a fifteen-point manifesto of political reforms that would restore some of the pre-civil war freedoms and undo much of the War Communism policy.

A rebellion at the strategically vital base – with its garrison in a complex of forts and the ships of the Baltic Fleet frozen in the winter ice – presented the government with a political and military crisis. Lenin claimed that the rebellion amounted to a counter-revolutionary plot that could allow the British and French navies access to Petrograd. Victor Serge, although sympathetic to the rebels’ manifesto, at the time essentially took the same view and so reluctantly supported the government’s position: “…insurgent Kronstadt was not counter-revolutionary, but its victory would have led inexorably to the counter-revolution.”

The rank and file Kronstadt rebels were certainly not ‘counter-revolutionaries’ although amongst their leaders Admiral Dmitriev and General Koslowsky were both openly reactionary and hostile to the Left. However Lenin’s much-derided claim that the rising was inspired by counter-revolutionaries has in fact been supported by evidence only available after the fall of the Soviet Union that reveals how former Czarist ministers and the French prime minister tried to provide support and funds for the rebellion.

The rebels were not necessarily anarchists either, although anarchists subsequently came to champion their cause and saw the crushing of the rebellion as the ultimate Bolshevik betrayal of the revolutionary ideal. In fact Victor Serge was not the only anarchist to be found on the side of the government; the anarcho-syndicalist ‘Workers’ Opposition’ faction even joined the government assault against the garrison. There was actually far from unanimous support for the rebels even within the Kronstadt base – some ships-crews declared against the mutiny and civilian dockyard workers secured parts of the base for the government.

Essentially the rebels are probably best defined as a coming-together of those groups alienated by the War Communism policies. Many of the rebel sailors of 1921 were not actually the same revolutionary icons of 1905 and 1917 – that generation had been diluted when many amongst them had volunteered in the early stages of the civil war. Their places were taken by conscripts from peasant backgrounds who opposed the Bolsheviks’ policies in the countryside. Victor Serge even claimed that the rebellion could have been averted if the government had only introduced New Economic Program a year earlier than it did. These reforms replaced War Communism and permitted small-scale private production and a degree of autonomy for the peasants.

Although defense or denunciation of the Bolsheviks at Kronstadt has become almost an act of faith amongst the various tribes of the Left today, these inconvenient truths suggest that the facts were more complex if no less tragic than the polemics permit.

The ambiguity of Kronstadt is personified by the extraordinary story of one of the better-known mutineers – Stepan Petrichenko. The peasant/sailor from the Ukraine was originally an anarcho-syndicalist who later joined the Bolsheviks. After the defeat of the rebellion he fled over the ice to Finland. There he was an opponent of the far-right regime and even worked as an agent for Stalin’s GPU. When the Soviets invaded in the Winter War of 1940 he was arrested and deported by the Finns to the Soviet Union, where he subsequently died in prison.

[Written by journeyman]

Posted in World Events | 4 Comments

14th February 1831 the Death of Vicente Guerrero

Vicente Guerrero

Today we pay tribute to the man known as the George Washington and Abraham Lincoln of Mexico. Vicente Guerrero was one of the leading revolutionary generals in Mexico’s 11-year war of independence and, as the republic’s second president, abolished slavery in 1829 – forty years before Lincoln would do the same. But unlike his illustrious American counterparts, Guerrero was born into abject poverty, never received any formal education and was vexed by the double whammy of his African and Indian heritage. In the tyrannical caste system that Spain imposed on colonial Mexico in the early 19th century, to be either African or Indian was to be a part of an underclass denied political rights and social freedoms. But to be of mixed-race – a “pardo” or “mulatto lobo” – was, for the bigoted race-obsessed Spanish oligarchs, the absolute bottom rung of the caste ladder. It was despite and in spite of these seemingly insurmountable economic and class barriers that Guerrero rose to become a great leader. Between 1810 and 1821, he led 491 battles without defeat; at times he was the only rebel leader keeping the fight for independence alive through an ingenious guerrilla warfare campaign backed up by his loyal pardo army. Such was his egolessness and identification with his fellow indigenous soldiers that he never accepted personal credit for any of his great military victories: “It wasn’t me, but the people who fought and triumphed.”

Following Mexico’s independence, its new leaders were beset by divisions that would establish a long-running pattern of betrayed alliances, corruption and political upheavals within the fledgling country. A monarchy, its emperor and the first republican president had already been deposed when Vicente Guerrero was elected president on 1st April 1829.  The “father of the people” promptly dedicated himself to improving the lot of the impoverished former castas. As president, Guerrero was an ardent defender of indigenous rights and a harsh opponent of social and economic inequalities. In reformative moves way ahead of his time, he taxed the rich, protected small businesses, abolished the death penalty and championed the village council movement in which peasants elected their own representatives. True freedom, he declared, is “living with a knowledge that no one is above anyone else, and that there is no title more honoured than that of the citizen” – and signed his correspondence “Citizen Guerrero.”

Guerrero formally abolished slavery on September 16th, 1829. But this, his greatest moment, would verily trigger his own downfall when Texas – officially Mexican territory, but largely populated by Anglo-American slaveholding settlers – immediately threatened revolt. Under immense pressure, Guerrero was forced to sign another decree exempting the future lone star state. The damage, however, had been done; in the minds of the Texan colonists and Mexico’s criollo-Spanish elite, their interests were not safe under a mixed-raced, populist president with dangerous ideas of unrestricted democracy. After just eight months in office, Guerrero was overthrown by his conservative political opponents. Forced to flee southward into the mountains, he evaded capture for a year but, in early 1831, was enticed aboard an Italian ship and betrayed by the captain, who turned him over to the government for 50,000 pesos. Guerrero was court-martialled, convicted of treason and sentenced to death. He was executed by firing squad on 14th February 1831.

And when Citizen Vicente Guerrero was killed, so too was the hope for a democratic Republic of Mexico – the way was paved for racist, elitist, self-serving and corrupt dictators who held back Mexican progress well into the 20th century. With eerie hindsight of what would befall Mexico in its next turbulent hundred years, it seems almost fantastical that a Black Indian president addressed a Republican Mexican Congress in 1829 with such judicious vision:

“The administration is obliged to procure the widest possible benefits and apply them from the palace of the rich to the wooden shack of the humble laborer. If one can succeed in spreading the guarantees of the individual, if the equality before the law destroys the efforts of power and of gold, if the highest title between us is that of citizen, if the rewards we bestow are exclusively for talent and virtue, we have a republic, and she will be conserved by the universal suffrage of a people solid, free and happy.”

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