Rural rebellion

Issue: 159

Graham Mustin

A review of Martin Empson, Kill all the Gentlemen: Class Struggle and Change in the English Countryside (Bookmarks, 2018), £14.99

When Karl Marx analysed the birth of capitalism he drew attention to what he called the primitive accumulation of capital. This entailed the dispossession of many small rural producers and the creation of a proletariat with nothing to sell but their labour power. Martin Empson’s book Kill all the Gentlemen shows how this process happened over a long period and how it was resisted.

Empson rescues the often forgotten story of rural class struggle in English history, showing how ordinary men and women consistently fought to defend their rights and resist the transformation of agriculture into a system run for the profit of a minority. The book opens with a clear account of changing rural life in medieval England before looking at the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in historical context. He combines a well-researched and scholarly analysis with a lively and readable style and includes a good selection of contemporary quotations that give a real feel for the class struggle. Empson’s ability to explain the motivations of rural rebels and the reasons for their actions is demonstrated again in his account of Jack Cade’s Rebellion in 1450, an episode that is often overlooked, where he emphasises the participation of thousands of ordinary men and women who hoped for social change.

Empson’s account of the Tudor rebellions begins with a perceptive analysis of the changing economic and social structure in Tudor England, highlighting the importance of enclosure and the privatisation of common land. His discussion of the impact of the Reformation demonstrates the role of religion in medieval and early modern rural revolt and he gives a comprehensive evaluation of the relative importance of religious grievances and demands for agrarian reform in risings such as the Pilgrimage of Grace during Henry VIII’s reign. Empson consistently demonstrates the ability to understand the complex inter-relationship between religion and wider social, economic and political questions, something that often eludes more high-profile mainstream historians who, as he points out, try too hard to separate religion from other issues.

Empson’s strengths as a Marxist historian are clear when he analyses the role of class struggle in the transition from feudalism to capitalism before going on to explain the context of the Civil War. His discussion of the Civil War focusses on the way the rural population organised to protect their interests and took the opportunity to take back some of the rights they had lost, and to take revenge on those who had oppressed and exploited them. He also gives a thought-provoking account of Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers, concluding that, although this experiment in communal living was defeated, Winstanley’s vision of an equal rural society based on common ownership of the land can still inspire us today. He goes on to look at how enclosure was extended and the English countryside was transformed in the period after the Civil War.

Empson’s chapter on the rise of the rural proletariat again focusses on resistance with a detailed account of the movement known as Captain Swing. He identifies this as the high point in decades of rural class struggle and contrasts this movement with the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the rise of rural trade unionism. He points out that the moderation of the “martyrs” and their depiction as victims of state repression fitted the interests of the new trade union leaders who wanted to present themselves as respectable and law-abiding. Captain Swing by contrast was a rebellious movement that engaged in widespread arson and destruction of property and put real fear in the hearts of the ruling class. It is no surprise that the Tolpuddle Martyrs are still celebrated each year while the Swing rebels are largely forgotten.

Empson challenges the common portrayal of the English countryside as a timeless centre of genuine values in contrast to the fast-changing cities and towns. Instead, he depicts a rural world of constant change, in which class conflict continually breaks out as attempts to restrict the rights of peasants and labourers are resisted. He records the continuing protests against enclosure, the loss of common land and the extension of aristocratic power through resistance to the spread of deer parks and the increasingly draconian laws against poaching. He explains how capitalist farming developed and created a substantial rural proletariat but also gives examples of how it was fought every step of the way. In an afterword, he brings the story of the English countryside up to date by discussing the effects of neoliberalism on agriculture and the struggle to create a socially just and ­environmentally friendly rural society.

Kill all the Gentlemen puts class struggle back at the centre of the history of rural England. It is accessible to the reader who has little or no knowledge of the events covered as well as being a valuable contribution to scholarship on the subject. Few contemporary historians would be capable of producing such a wide-ranging work that identifies how the process of change occurred and how inequality and exploitation were resisted. We are lucky that Empson has written such an excellent overview that sides clearly with the oppressed and exploited. I would urge anyone who has an interest in how capitalism developed in England and in the history of the ordinary men and women who resisted its imposition to read this book.

Graham Mustin is a member of the SWP in Leeds with an interest in researching religion and class conflict particularly in the Middle Ages.