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Book Reviews

When Adam Delved and Eve Span: A History of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.

Mark O’Brien, New Clarion Press, Cheltenham, 2004.

The publishers say that “the aim of this book is a modest one”, and there are in fact only 86 pages of text. Nevertheless, O’Brien describes the revolt, and its background and origins, in reasonable detail. Of the author, the publishers state that he is a “lifelong socialist and trade unionist”, and then give the game away by adding that “he has stood twice as a Socialist Alliance candidate in Liverpool”. And it does show in parts of his narrative.
By the end of the fourteenth century, feudalism was breaking down. The plague earlier in the century had decimated the population, with between a third and a half dying. Many former peasants moved into the towns. Artisans and others demanded, and often achieved, higher wages. The government attempted to keep wages down by law, but with little success. The Church was in crisis, and was corrupt. Jon Wycliffe and, to a greater extent, priests such as John Ball, preached a kind of primitive Christian communism: hence, when “Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” And, moreover, the Hundred Years’ War with France was crippling the English state. The government attempted to increase the poll tax by three groats. As O’Brien comments, “England was seething with unrest.”
By 1381, a peasants’ revolt was inevitable. All over Essex and Kent and, later, beyond the peasants and their supporters organised their army, first  taking Rochester Castle. John Ball had, for some time, been sending letters as well as travelling from town to town, preaching rebellion couched in allegorical and religious sentiments. Wat Tyler, until then unknown, organised an army of probably 30,000 peasants who, on 12 June, arrived on Blackheath, south of the Thames.
O’Brien details the taking of London, the capture of the Tower and the attempts of the government, and the king, to placate the peasants. A number of aristocrats and government officials were captured and then beheaded by the rebel army. The showdown between Tyler and the king and his representatives occurred on 14 June, at Mile End, when Tyler was stabbed and, shortly after, taken from St. Bartholemew’s Hospital and beheaded.
Meanwhile, as O’Brien writes, the revolt had been spreading throughout Kent, Essex and East Anglia. But by this time, the government had been able to cobble together a few hundred disciplined troops. There were battles in Cambridge. Rebels gathered in Billericay in Essex, but were soon forced to retreat to Colchester. As O’Brien notes, by 15 June, “the revolt was in full flow”. In Norfolk, events were proceeding apace. Incidentally, on the same day that Geoffry Lister mustered rebels on Mousehold Heath near Norwich, on 17 June, my ancestor Thomas de Newell of Craneworth in  the Hundred of Mitford, was indicted for “depriving John de Harlyngg and Adam Galyon of their goods and chattels”. He was, like many others, almost certainly hanged or beheaded.
Inevitably, as Mark O’Brien demonstrates, the government won the day and defeated the peasants in battle. The chronicles of the time tell of the execution of 7000 peasants “by the axe and the noose”. Reliable estimates have since reckoned the final toll to be about 2000.
What then was the outcome of the revolt of 1381? O’Brien says that it played a decisive role in putting an end to villeinage and the economic base of feudalism in England. It further weakened the power of the Catholic Church. In more recent times, it captured the imaginations of historians as well as writers such as William Morris, who wrote The Dream of John Ball, and whom O’Brien quotes. He also mentions a number of works written by Stalinist and Trotskyist writers, although he does not appear to be conversant with a much longer fictionalised account, English Episode, by Charles Poulsen written in 1946. For those interested further in the revolt and its background, I would recommend G.M.Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe despite his “Whiggish prejudices”


Fellowship is Life. Denis Pye, Clarion Publishing, £4.95.

This is a very fine history of what was a probably an unnecessary organisation, based on what was a very nasty journal indeed. In this slim, but well illustrated and superbly presented, volume, Pye gives an excellent account of the background and development of the Clarion Cycling Club and its one-time companions in the Clarion movement. The book is a very useful addition to the field of Labour history as a history of The Clarion and its associated organisations has never before been written.
The Clarion, or ‘The Perisher’ as was colloquially known, was a very popular ‘socialist’ journal, established in 1891 and flourishing prior to the 1914-18 war. Its popularity was mainly a product of its humorous appeal – initially the journal was little more than the equivalent of a modern university ragmag. While there can be no objection to an injection of comedy, such a magazine should have formed no basis for further organisation. Later on The Clarion became something of a forum for the various contemporary brands of ‘socialist’ (the Socialist Party however seems to have been barred – see the Socialist Standard of November and December 1906). So far as it held political opinions of its own, its ‘socialism’ was pretty poor stuff: Blatchford, the magazine’s guru, defined his “new religion” as being “To love one another as brothers and sisters and to love the earth as the mother of all.” The Clarion combined such ILP-ish, wishy-washy sentimentality with a love of militarism (the greeting of the Clarionettes, “Boots”, and its response “Spurs”, was straight from the barrack-room) and nationalism (one of Blatchford’s books being Britain for the British). Given the lack of ideological clarity it is unsurprising that The Clarion was one of the Left’s most vociferous supporters of the First World War. Although this was initially a rather popular stance, the bloody pointlessness of the not-so-Great War cut the magazine’s feet from under it. The Clarion died a natural and not overly premature death in 1932.
It was survived, however, by the Clarion Cycling Club. The original aim of this organisation, like the contemporary Clarion vans (described in Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists), was to sell the paper and thus ‘spread the word’. But the main purpose of the CCC came to be a social one. This was true also of the wide range of other Clarion-related groups. And the range was indeed wide including clubhouses, choirs, amateur dramatic societies, camera clubs and even a café. The social focus was probably inevitable given the vague nature of Clarion ‘socialism’. All this became even more important after 1918 when paper-selling activities were downgraded (to give them their due the majority of Clarionettes did not approve of the paper’s attitude to the war and mostly dropped it thereafter). During the interwar period the Clarion groups became working class social clubs, whose political standpoint, so far as one existed, was Left Labour. The Clarion Cycle Club survives today in much the same fashion (although it must be said that nostalgia is also an attractive factor).
Traditionally membership of the Clarion Cycle Club was banned to Socialist Party members, because the political content of the CCC, although marginal, was definitely reformist in nature. While our own Party has always had social activities (and these are important – we are human beings not daleks), these are entirely secondary to propagandising for socialism. From a political point of view mixing with non-socialists in non-sectarian clubs brings opportunities to ‘spread the word’ on a personal level (sometimes far more effective than formal propaganda).
Fellowship is Life is a reminder of how much time and effort were spent on what was an entirely unworthy journal. But such are the ways of reformism.


Copies of the book (£4.95 inc. P&P) are available from Clarion Publishing, 34 Temple Road, Halliwell, Bolton, BL1 3LT.KS


Not on the label, Felicity Lawrence, Penguin, £7.99

Behind the label

Most of us are probably aware that our food is not quite what it’s cracked up to be, even if it’s not all junk food. But in this book, the Guardian’s consumer affairs correspondent shows just how unhealthy much of what we eat is and why it gets to be that way.
One important point made relates to the dominant position of the supermarkets, especially the large chains. They can squeeze the profits of the companies who produce the food, sometimes asking suppliers to pay to have their products on the shelves or in some prominent position. In addition they effectively dictate what we can buy, or at least what range of goods we can choose from when we shop. With their absurd ideas about the kind of food that is acceptable to consumers – such as specific sizes of green beans or Brussels sprouts – they cause an awful lot of decent food to go to waste.
Their enormous distribution centres are not real warehouses, since food is only kept in them for short periods: the idea is that it is delivered and then sent across the country to stores in as rapid a turnover as possible, leading to vast numbers of lorries speeding up and down the motorways. And, according to Lawrence, there is evidence that the more miles fruit and veg travels, the lower its vitamin content. Such constant replenishment of the distribution centres relies heavily on casual labour, often undertaken at rock-bottom rates in appalling conditions by migrant workers, a supply of labour that can be turned on and off like a tap, as the supermarkets constantly change their demands for food. It is a workforce that ranges from Portuguese workers in East Anglia to Moroccans in Spain.
A further consequence of the retailers’ power is that the suppliers work on decreasing profit margins, and often cannot even afford to get rid of waste (such as diseased carcasses) properly. Chicken factories are now enormous production lines, where a single infected bird can cause thousands to become contaminated with campylobacter. Unwanted skin is made into chicken nuggets, while chicken for sandwiches and ready meals is commonly adulterated with water (plus various additives to keep the water in, including cow waste).
Returning to supermarkets, you may have been impressed by the ‘in-store’ bakeries that a lot of them have. In fact, many of these just finish off bread that has been made and partially baked elsewhere. White sliced bread is often sold at a loss, to get people into the shops. Most of it is made by the thoroughly nasty-sounding Chorley-wood bread process, which involves air and water being added to the dough, plus fats to stop the bread collapsing. Ready meals, which have massively increased in popularity over the last few years, are high in processed fats, sugars and starch. Modified starch also plays a big part in low-fat yoghurts, which are not as healthy as they sound. Did you know that a “strawberry-flavoured” yoghurt has at least some strawberry content, but a “strawberry-flavour” yoghurt does not?
The kind of food available to workers has changed dramatically over the last few decades, with curries and pastas that were not previously available now regularly finding their way to our gullets. But that certainly does not mean that people now eat better and more healthily. Lawrence makes it clear that considerations of profit are what drive the way the food industry works. Her suggestion is to shop on three principles: local, seasonal and direct. But a better answer is to establish a system of society where food is produced for need not profit.


Anti-Capitalism. A Marxist Introduction. Edited by Alfredo Saad-Filho. Pluto Press.

Marxism: an anti-capitalist view?

If you proclaim yourself to be “anti-capitalist”, it is a good idea to have some idea of what capitalism is. Alfredo Saad-Filho has gathered together here contributions from people considering themselves Marxists to produce “a Marxist introduction” to capitalism and anti-capitalism. His opening article on “Value, Capital and Exploitation” is excellent as is the closing article by Paresh Chattopadhyay, who understands that the abolition of capitalism involves the disappearance of money, wage-labour, commodity production and buying and selling generally and that “Marx does not distinguish between communism and socialism. Both stand for the society succeeding capitalism. (The distinction was first to be made famous, if not introduced, by Lenin)”. A number of the others make valid points, as, for instance, Ellen Meiksins Wood when she points out that many in the “anti-capitalist movement”:

“are not so much anti-capitalist as anti-‘globalisation’, or perhaps anti-neoliberal, or even just opposed to particularly malignant corporations. They assume that the detrimental effects of the capitalist system can be eliminated by taming global corporations or by making them more ‘ethical’, ‘responsible’, and socially conscious.”

Others, despite their reputations, are obviously mere reformists, especially two ex-members of a Communist Party, Ben Fine and Suzanne de Brunhoff. The former, who can’t have known about Chattopadhyay’s contribution, talks of “some form of wage labour persisting” in the first stage of socialist/communist society while the latter opines that “a new public regulation of markets and financial institutions is necessary”.
In fact, all through the book there is an underlying tension between an analysis of capitalism as a profit-driven system governed by its own economic laws which preclude it working in the interest of the majority class of wage and salary workers and proposals to try to make it do precisely that.
You would have thought that the main aim of an anti-capitalist movement would be to end capitalism and establish socialism (as the sort of society described by Chattopadhyay). Apparently not. If this book is anything to go by, this is not advocated, except rhetorically, even by those within it who consider themselves Marxists. The aim seems to be to bring pressure on existing governments to introduce reforms and to change their policy so as to tame multinational corporations and/or return to the state interventionism of pre-Reagan and Thatcher times. Even Saad-Filho himself claims, in his introduction:

“Pressure for or against specific policies can be effective, and the ensuing policy choices can improve significantly the living conditions of the majority” (his emphasis).

“Improve significantly”? We can only retort “Prove it”, since all the evidence of experience as well as a Marxian analysis and understanding of capitalism goes against this. That’s why, in our view, coherent anti-capitalists should be campaigning for socialism not changes of policy.


<>Storming Heaven. Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomous Marxism.Steve Wright. Pluto Press.

Autonomist Leninists

“Autonomist Marxism”, what is that? If you can plough through the first hundred pages of the rather abstruse views of some tortured Italian intellectuals, this book will help you discover that it is, or was in Italy in the 1970s, a variety of Leninism rather than Marxism. Its members regarded themselves as a vanguard of intellectuals seeking to relate to the “working class” and to help them in their struggles, but who were trying to work out exactly who the working class were.
Starting out from the “workerist” (“operaismo”, their own description) position that the working class were the manual workers in big factories, some of them eventually reached the conclusion that the working class were everybody forced to sell their mental and physical energies for a wage or salary (though still apparently not including themselves). Unfortunately, this correct conclusion was tied to the view that the immediate enemy of the working class was the state as the collective capitalist and that the “class struggle” was therefore a violent struggle against the state.
Some took this literally and went in for bombings and shootings. Naturally, the state fought back and a number of them ended up in jail, including some the state didn’t realise were only posturing. Their theory of the state also led them to mistakenly see the way to working class emancipation as being not the abolition of the wages system, i.e. of the buying and selling of labour power and of buying and selling generally, but instead that everybody should be paid a “social” or “political wage”, a variant of the “citizen’s income” advocated by the Green Party and various currency cranks in Britain. Hardly Marx’s view.
This said, some interesting, though highly controversial, ideas did emerge from all this. For instance, that the technology and productive methods introduced under capitalism are not just neutral but adapted to facilitate the exploitation of the working class and so cannot simply be used unchanged in socialism; that all workers, including housewives, contributed, collectively, to the production of surplus value so that any distinction between “productive” and “non-productive” workers was impossible; and – what is the distinguishing feature of those, mainly outside Italy these days who call themselves “autonomist Marxists” – that “so-called economic laws had to be rediscovered as political forces, behind which lay the motor of working-class struggle” (p. 84).
To deny that there are any objective economic laws of capitalism is of course to go too far, even though working-class struggle is an essential element in, for instance, determining the level of wages. It is in fact to open the way to reformism, to the view that these can be overcome within capitalism if enough political pressure is applied, whether by parliamentary action or, as advocated by the Italian Autonomists, industrial or violent action.