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Book Review: 'The English Rebels'

Radical history

'The English Rebels', by Charles Poulsen, (Journeyman, 1984)

This book is a commemoration of popular radical movements and a celebration of the spirit and ideals underlying those movements. It begins with the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and plots history through the Lollards, Jack Cade, Kett's Rebellion, the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, the Naval Mutinies of 1797, the Luddites, the Trade Unions, the Reform Bill, Chartism and the Emancipation of Women. It is intended as a popular history, redressing the balance from a consideration of the antics of Kings and Queens to an analysis of movements arising out of the discontent of ordinary people.

This is a useful history although it is remarkably brief. What is does emphasise is the role of violent insurrection as part of the fabric of British historical development. Poulsen says of British history that

    "it is one of a long, almost a continual series of risings, rebellions, revolts, riots and direct actions that have wrung from the nation's rulers the sequence of reforms and changes that have resulted in today's society." (p.45)

To this might be added the history of violent reaction from governments in response to the radical movements, even though many of these were reformist in nature and held allegiance to long and/or parliament.

Given that six hundred years of history are dealt with in some two hundred pages it is little wonder that much of what is discussed is almost shorthand. At times this reads more like a dictionary of radical ideas. Tom Paine is dispatched in four pages and Robert Owen only merits three passing references. As for William Morris, he does not appear. As much of the work is descriptive we are left asking questions of the text. Poulsen says of the demands of the Peasants' Revolt that "this is not the place to subject these demands to close political analysis" (p.24). This is a stance that is maintained throughout the work but it is a political analysis that is essentially required. It is not sufficient to describe a history of idealism. Radical ideas must be subjected to analysis in order to understand why they should have arisen and to what extent they are feasible. We need also to understand the implications of those ideas. Any history of radical thinking ought not to be restricted simply to an examination of English radical thought. Marx and Engels are mentioned fleetingly but it is important to understand the part they played in contributing to the radical argument. What tends to happen is that Poulsen's shorthand confuses where it should elucidate, as when he cross refers "what the Bible calls 'love', the trade unions 'solidarity', the socialist 'fraternity'" (p.198). This does not explain what each of these concepts demands or the essential differences understood by these concepts. It is also simplistic to conclude that "socialism" means "fraternity" and again this emphasises the need for a greater analysis within the book. In his epilogue Poulsen argues that radicalism is an ongoing process in which we are all engaged but this theme is not developed sufficiently within the book and the reader is left making what connections he can. Poulsen argues that there is still a need for a "new" society and says:

    "this desired society has been known by many names over many centuries: the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, the New Jerusalem, the Rule of the Saints, the Digger Republic, the Co-operative Commonwealth, and so on. These early concepts, often associated with religious movements, remained unattainable ideals. It is no longer so." (pp.198-199)

We are not told what conditions have changed to enable the now attainability of these aims. Poulsen's history ends with the emancipation of women but if he really wishes to argue that the common ownership proposed by John Wycliffe can now be achieved he ought to have extended his analysis to a consideration of the debate as it now exists. In this he is guilty of ignoring the work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain which actually does argue the case for the establishment of common ownership as a practical possibility rather than as a moral ideal. At the same time Poulsen's own commitment to radicalism and revolutionary change can be questioned when he argues that at present the prominent radical change required is "the right to work, to practice one's skill or profession, to support oneself and one's dependents by one's labour and thereby make a contribution to the national well-being" (p.198). The perpetuation of capitalism is at odds with a society that can work in the interests of the majority. It is capitalism, for all the reforms that have been achieved, that alienates the working class from the means of production. Poulsen may argue that the "ideal society . . . can only be achieved after a radical reorganisation of our present economic and social relations" (p.199) but this is not explained. What form will that reorganisation take and how will it be achieved?

Poulsen's book is a valuable, though brief, introduction to some of the major radical ideas that have developed within society. At the same time it is a reminder of the need for a radical alternative to overcome prevailing ideologies as when he says of the suppression of trade unions that "the defence of freedom became a catchword to perpetuate poverty and exploitation" (p.157). The freedoms that are enjoyed are those of the capitalist class while poverty and exploitation are the lot of the majority. Poulsen ends with a moral imperative of the need for change rather than suffer nuclear annihilation. If he holds to this perspective then he ought to have analysed how the ideals of Ball, Kett and Winstanley have been developed and the contribution that they have made to the ongoing debate. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum. They are not simply an historic anomaly but a continuum which requires an understanding of the conditions that have given rise to those ideas and an appreciation of how they have matured in response. The history of radicalism is not a series of snapshots but a continuous refinement. The work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain has helped to transform the notion of an ideal into a practical and feasible alternative in which the needs of all society's members are the pre-requisite modus operandi of society.

Philip Bentley