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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Serfs you are and serfs you shall remain

A little over 40 years ago, to mark the 600th anniversary of the Peasant’s Revolt, the great socialist journalist Paul Foot wrote a very interesting article.

Foot explained how it was that a peasant army which had arrived in London and achieved its target of killing various of the King's most hated advisers was defeated although its adversaries lacked the military force to inflict such a defeat;

“Pretending that they wanted new talks with Tyler’s army, the king and a large gang of courtiers went to Smithfield. They insisted that Tyler come alone at least a mile from his army and talk to the king’s men about his demands and whether the army would disband. Tyler, still, trusting the king, came, alone, on his horse, and engaged in absurd negotiaions for a few moments. It’s not exactly known what happened. Somebody shouted out some insulting remark. Tyler drew his dagger. Five people jumped on him, stabbed him, and he fell dying to the ground.

Then the king, alone, went to the peasant army and explained that there had been an accident, a mistake. We don’t know exactly what he said to them, but he managed to persuade them that their demands would be met full, indeed had been met in full, and that it was a terrible thing that their leader had been killed. He led them out of the city.

That moment is the climax of the revolt, which begins to falter from there. The confidence of those peasant armies depended on their success, and now the success has stopped.

It’s difficult even to imagine, in those circumstances, how they could have conceded to King Richard as they did. The only explanation lies in the tremendous power which the royal presence had at that time over the common people.

(I have added the emphasis to that last sentence for reasons which regular readers of his blog, Sid and Doris Blogger, will already have guessed).

When, subsequently, some messengers from the peasant army got through to the court to remind the young King of what he had said to his people, he said to have replied as follows;

‘Serfs you have been and serfs you shall remain in bondage, not such as you have hitherto been subjected to, but incomparably viler. For so long as we live and rule by God’s grace over this kingdom we shall use our strength, sense and property to treat you that your slavery may be an example to posterity and that those who live now and hereafter, who may be like you, may always have before their eyes, as it were in a glass, your misery and reasons for cursing you and the fear of doing things like those which you have done.’

I don't suppose that any of the leaders of today's workers movement in this country expect their names will still be known and honoured in 640 years as are the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball. I think we would all hope, however, that we have learned something in the last six and a half centuries and that we would not repeat the mistakes of the past.

I am not, for one moment, comparing the embryonic strike wave of the past weeks with the events of 1381 which shook England’s feudal ruling class to its core. However, bearing in mind the decision to postpone TUC Congress, and the decisions to suspend  strike action by various trade unions, as well as the instruction to local Labour parties not only that we should cease campaigning, but that we may not even meet for the time being, I wonder whether we are entitled to feel that we have moved an inch forward from the position of our predecessors in 1381, so sadly seduced and betrayed because of their feelings about royalty.

I can understand why, in the moment, those charged with making such decisions may have concluded that strike action in the immediate aftermath of the death of a hereditary monarch might be unpopular even with many of those who might be called upon to take such action. Those having that decision in front of them will have to have taken into account; "the tremendous power which the royal presence [or perhaps absence] has at this time over the common people.”

Nevertheless it is a foolish and shamed Labour movement which ceases its activities to defend our people because an old woman living at the apex of our anachronistic class society has died at the end of a long life of comfort and privilege. 

There may not be that many today who will join this blogger in saying quite honestly that I did not respect the former monarch in life and I'm not such a hypocrite as to feign respect for her in death. Nor will a majority say of the new King Charles III that he has no legitimacy as a head of state, not being elected by or accountable to the residents within any of the areas he claims as his realms. Sometimes one just has to be prepared to paddle against the tide.

Those such as Trevor Sinclair, the sports commentator who observed, in response to the death of the former monarch, that this is a racist society, will be driven into apologies by the online equivalent of an 18th-century "Church and King mob". At the very point in time when it is most relevant to question the absurdity of a hereditary head of state in what purports to be an advanced democracy in the 21st-century, any attempt to ask such questions will be silenced with the demand for respect for a nation in mourning.

I hope that witnessing the damage which the cult of monarchy and its visceral appeal to "national unity” can do to our class will now awaken activists in the Party and trade unions to the need to take up cudgels in the cause of republicanism. Even self-professed revolutionaries in our ranks rarely prioritise attacking the absurdity of hereditary monarchy, both because it seems less urgent than the next strike or demonstration, and because it is much harder to win the argument for republicanism then it is to win the argument for strike action for higher pay, or to protest against racism.

I am proud to be chair of a Constituency Labour Party which has expressed its support for Labour for a Republic. I hope that socialist trade unionists who, like me, have looked on aghast as our movement falters at the very moment when it was beginning, for the first time in years, to seem relevant and effective, will now take the argument for republicanism up through their trade branches to conferences and ultimately to the TUC and (for affiliated unions) to Party conference.

This will be a long fight and a difficult one. It will go through all the phases identified by Tony Benn; “First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you.” My life expectancy probably won't see me beyond the first stage, but unless socialists within our movement commit themselves to embarking upon this journey our movement will never be fit to free our people.

Our class can never develop a hegemonic consciousness of and for ourselves whilst we are trapped beneath the nightmarish weight of the traditions of the past venerated by our rulers and oppressors.


Marguerite said...

Now is the best of times for us to stand up and declare ourselves. For myself, not tied to any political party, but to a stronger more potent Republican group. Maybe the time is right for the group to establish a political party to represent us.

Anonymous said...

Great and honest post

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. As an ardent life long supporter for the liberation of the oppressed masses and a former Unison steward I applaud your observation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Jon.