Tolpuddle and Swing: The Flea and the Elephant
‘One and all, one and all, we’ll stand by one another’
Chant of a Sussex Swing mob (1830)
‘We will destroy the constables and threshing machines this year, next year we will have a turn with the parsons, and the third we will make war upon the statesmen’
Kent Swing activist (1830)
In February this year a couple of members of Bristol Radical History Group travelled to Salisbury Guild Hall to witness the unveiling of a Trade Union plaque to commemorate the people who had passed through the court as a result of the agricultural uprisings of 1830. Until very recently these disturbances known as the ‘Swing Riots’ occupied a strange place in my memory. The very name ‘Swing’ conjured up a vaguely sinister (but appealing nonetheless) series of scattered backward ‘deep-country’ riots mixed with some Luddite-like behaviour.
Having got more seriously into history over the last few years I have come to be suspicious of my own ‘folk’ memories for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I know from experiencing a few historic events in my own lifetime that it doesn’t take long for the pure volume of media (TV, radio, newspapers, books, internet etc.) to overwhelm the populace with hegemonic views about such incidents and from there they often pass into our collective memory to become what we all remember. Secondly I stopped learning history at school when I was 14, so most of what I absorbed concerned Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings (and most of this I have forgotten)! Consequently much of the history I have aquired has come later in life due to its intersection with various social and political activities. However, my lack of formal education in history above pre-GCSE level I take as a useful advantage as it allows me to judge my historical memory in keeping with the majority of the British population.
This year Bristol Radical History Group have been asked by local Trade Unions to take part in the 175th Anniversary Tolpuddle festival. Now I do know about Tolpuddle, the repression unleashed by the state in 1833-34 on a group of Dorset farm labourers who joined an early Trade Union. Six ‘martyrs’ were tried and convicted and transported to Australia as a result. The date is curious, as it is so close to the ‘Swing’ events of 1830-31. I mulled this over and thought I better check out this Swing malarkey. After all, I thought, there might be an interesting link between the two events. The seminal work on these rural disturbances is ‘Captain Swing’, authored by the Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé, which I would highly recommend as it’s readable and full of interesting angles on the revolt. This work forms the starting point of my analysis and critique of the historiography of the Swing risings.
So what were the ‘Swing riots’?
The ‘Swing riots’ were a huge wave of mass machine breaking, arson, protests, riots and extortion carried out by farm labourers and village artisans between the summers of 1830 and 1831. Beginning in Kent the movement spread rapidly over three months to engulf twenty-two counties from the southeast to the southwest of England. They became known as the Swing riots as the collective destruction of agricultural machines and the burning of hayricks was usually preceded by a threatening letter to the owners often signed by the mysterious ‘Captain Swing’. The disturbances were characterised by self-organised mobile gangs of farm labourers and others, often from different villages, carrying out the brazen destruction of machinery and extortion of the better-off landowners in a local district. Other facets of the movement included riots over wages and tithes, the destruction of workhouses and factories and attacks on parsons, the gentry and overseers of the poor.
According to Hobsbawm and Rudé there were several causes for the riots the most obvious being the progressive unemployment and pauperisation of the farm labourers after the Napoleonic Wars, partly due to the mechanisation of agriculture. As a result many of the labourers and their families were forced into taking parish charity and consequently there were attempts by the wealthy to reduce the increasing burden of poor relief. The final straw was two particularly bad harvests in 1828 and 1829, which faced the already hungry, and desperate farm labourers in the summer of 1830, after an unimpressive harvest, with little option but to take action.
To give some idea of the scale of the disturbances (and these are conservative estimates), over 400 agricultural machines (mostly threshing) were destroyed; there were around 350 cases of arson and over 350 riots between Jan 1830 and Sept 1832. The final cost of the destruction was conservatively estimated by Hobsbawm and Rudé to be in the region of £120,000 (approximately £136 million pounds). The human cost to the labourers and their allies was even more severe with nearly 2000 trials, of which 252 people were sentenced to death (19 were actually executed), 644 imprisoned and nearly 500 transported to Australia for terms of 7 to 14 years with little hope of ever returning. This was the largest group of prisoners ever transported from England for a common crime. The authors point out as a result of the repression ‘in the south of England, there were whole communities that, for a generation, were stricken by the blow. From no other protest movement of the kind – from neither Luddites nor Chartists, nor trade unionists - was such a bitter price exacted’.
Why Tolpuddle and not Swing?
So why don’t I know about the Swing uprising? As a historical event it makes the Tolpuddle incident look like a flea on the back of an elephant! I can understand why don’t I remember it as vividly as the Battle of Trafalgar or Waterloo. I have come to expect this from my memory, which was partly constructed by history books and war comics in the 60s and 70s written by British nationalist mythmakers. But hang on a minute I come from vaguely lefty stock, so how could such a massive movement be obscured for so long? After all, it’s not Irish history, which we seem to be just starting to see on the TV and radio after the end of ‘the Troubles’. Hobsbawm and Rudé were given huge praise for writing the groundbreaking ‘Captain Swing’, so how come it took until 1969 for somebody to write it? My shock at this state of affairs was the inspiration to think these issues through and try to answer some of these questions.
My recent comparison of the riots in Bristol in 1831 with the Peterloo ‘massacre’ in 1819 follows a similar path to what I am going to suggest here. I am going to discount the more reactionary views about ahistorical ‘rabbles’ and ‘mobs’, which are fairly useless at explaining anything apart from the political position of the proponent. Instead I am going to suggest that the Swing uprisings just didn’t (and still don’t) tick the right boxes for either the Whig, social-democratic/labour or even the classical Marxist histories (despite the pioneering efforts of Hobsbawm and Rudé). I am going to start by outlining the criteria that were required for a historical event to become iconic in modern Trade Union history and compare Tolpuddle with Swing in this context. Then I move onto to examine the more complex problems events such as the Swing risings face with respect to classical Marxist analysis.
In general for historical events to be recognised as part of social democratic or Trade Union history there must be a formal organisation involved. The Tolpuddle martyrs score well here as they joined a ‘friendly society’ run by a respectable Methodist. Friendly societies have been interpreted as early forms of Trade Union and although it would have been better for the Tolpuddle narrative if it had been in an industrial setting, beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to random repression by the state. Unfortunately, although the numerous Swing militants showed admirable and highly functional forms of self-organisation, including early types of flying pickets and ‘hit squads’ beloved by the more militant industrial workers of the late 20th century, were able to organise mass meetings and deploy delegates from various villages and were able to spread their movement both physically and by example across virtually half of England in less than three months, they didn’t have a formally recognised organisation. Despite valiant (or desperate?) attempts by Hobsbawm and Rudé to find an actual rather than causal link between non-conformist religious groups or friendly societies and the organisation of the Swing risings they were forced to concede that Colonel Brotherton’s assessment that ‘the insurrectionary movement seems to be directed by no plan or system, but merely actuated by the spontaneous feeling of the peasants, and quite at random’ was correct. So Swing apparently scores nil points on the formal organisation scale.
The arrest, trial and transportation of the Tolpuddle six for swearing an oath was met by peaceful mass petitioning (800,000 signatures), a meeting of 1000 people and a one day demonstration of 200,000 in London. The six were eventually pardoned two years later in March 1836 and all had returned to England by 1838. So one could argue that the peaceful and law abiding campaign for their pardon was successful. However the fact that the authorities were able to carry out this disgraceful trial and transportation at all, shows their feeling of strength and confidence after the horror years of 1830-31.
In contrast to the peaceful Tolpuddle incident, the Swing risings involved a great deal of direct action involving systematic destruction of property by arson and hammer, straight forward riot, successful attempts to release prisoners, violent threats by crowds in order to extort money from the wealthy and in some cases public beatings of the gentry and clergy. In this form of open class warfare, the normally veiled relations of force are exposed and weaknesses in the systems of control become obvious to the protagonists.
For example, consider this public declaration by Norfolk magistrates on 24th November 1830 after a week of Swing riot and arson: ‘The Magistrates…, having taken into consideration the disturbed state of the…Country in general, wish to make it publicly known that it is their opinion that such disturbances principally arise from the use of Threshing Machines, and to the insufficient Wages of the labourers. The Magistrates therefore beg to recommend to the Owners and Occupiers of Land in these Hundreds to discontinue the use of Threshing Machines, and to increase the Wages of Labour to Ten shillings a week….at the same time they feel that no severe measures will be necessary, if the proprietors of Land will give proper employment to the Poor on their own Occupations, and encourage their Tenants to do the same’. This amazing statement, showing the impact of the Swing uprising upon the gentry and their magistrates, is effectively a reform against the financial interests of the landed and clearly shows the supposedly unwavering ‘Law of the Land’ to be a sham purely dependant on relations of force in a class war.
A clear comparison can be made here with the failure of 200,000 people on a peaceful demonstration to get an immediate pardon for the Tolpuddle six in 1834. Perhaps, a few hundred rioting Dorset labourers may have got the men free or even forced the magistrates to drop the ridiculous charges in the first place. The point I am making is that the Tolpuddle incident fits the bill for a particular view of Trade Union history, as it involved no direct action, destruction of property or violence despite the fact that those kinds of actions had been and were still prevalent at the time around Tolpuddle. In fact, the peaceable Friendly Society or early Trade Union that characterised the Tolpuddle incident was the exception to the rule whereas arson, machine breaking and riot, were not. The Swing risings were too close to these forms of direct action and as such failed to suit the reformist and parliamentary practices that the Trade Unions were engaging in then and of course now. Tolpuddle by comparison emphasises the peaceful search for justice through Trade Unionism.
The Swing and Tolpuddle histories do have a significant connection in that most of the convicted protagonists ended up transported to Australia to work as forced labourers on government projects or for private employers. The main difference of course is that the Tolpuddle Martyrs are just that, martyrs. That is they are generally regarded as innocent victims of the unjust Combination laws of the 18th century. However, these acts had actually been repealed in 1824 and in practice an obscure 1797 law relating to the Mutiny Act forbidding the swearing of oaths was used to convict them. This makes them doubly victimised, by the fact that they were unjustly arrested for joining a Trade Union and outrageously convicted of treasonous behaviour. Consequently, they were perfect material for reformist propagandists who could portray them as patriots rather than traitors, merely trying to protect their meagre wages by joining this new form of organisation, the Trade Union in the guise of a Friendly Society.
In contrast, those convicted of offences during the Swing rising were part of a desperate movement that went on the offensive against the classes who exploited their labour. That is, they actually did something. They were not (in general) innocent; they did break machines, commit arson, and extort money from the parsons and the gentry. Not only this, they often did it on mass, in broad daylight and with a conviction partly derived from a belief in customary right. That is that they were entitled to do so. They are thus considered in standard British histories to be guilty. This is a recurrent problem for any reformist movement (such as the emerging Trade Unions of the time), which is trying to protect its political image. Usually, when members or potential supporters of such reformist organisations do break the law and use tactics that are considered by the leadership to be counter-productive to their notion of acceptable struggle, there are only two ways to deal with the issue. The first is to claim that the protagonists are law-abiding, therefore innocent and that someone else was responsible. With the Swing rising this was impossible, because it was so widespread, so blatant and despite the attempts by sections of the ruling class to blame ‘outside agitators’ clearly the work of some or all of those arrested and convicted. The second course of action is to at the time condemn it, disassociate your organisation from it and eventually write it out of your history. This I believe is what happened to the Swing events. Tolpuddle was a far more attractive proposition as an iconic story of the founding of the Trade Union movement and at its core, as with all Judeo-Christian narratives are some martyrs.
The paradox of course is that those convicted in the Swing rising were victimised and were actually martyred, with 252 condemned to death, 19 executions and massive numbers imprisoned and transported as I have noted previously. The suffering of the convicted and their families lasted a lifetime and affected their communities for generations. Interestingly, there was an immense local reaction in some areas to the sentences. For example, ‘At Reading, within thirty-six hours of the Commission’s sentence, a petition for reprieve had been signed by 15,000 residents’. From further afield, radical groups petitioned the government for mercy in support of Swing arsonists, but at no time was there an attempt to portray the convicted as innocent.
I want to move on to some of the difficulties a classical Marxist analysis presents in remembering the Swing risings. By classical I mean, an emphasis on the objective parts of Marx’s analysis of capitalism and its supersession. Essentially this is the idea that not only is the overthrow of capitalism only possible when the right economic conditions have been achieved but that the consciousness of those who are going to do it, the revolutionary class, is also determined by this objective process. This is a stagist view of history, where only when you have jumped all the hurdles are you able to win the race to human emancipation. The hurdles being, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and eventually communism, with the end of history being the winning tape. Classical Marxists argue that you certainly can’t skip hurdles along the way and your consciousness develops as you get over each one. So if you are, say, a peasant then you cannot get over the capitalism hurdle because you are not equipped to do so. Only by being dispossessed of your land and forced into wage labour (proletarianised) can you gain the required class-consciousness to get over the capitalism hurdle. So for classical Marxists, peasants are by their very nature backward, incapable of revolutionary consciousness and Dodo like in that they don’t realise they are going to be extinct pretty soon.
These kinds of views are of course familiar to us all in quite a different way. The term peasant means dumb, obstinate and backward to us for related reasons from a different origin. The rise of capitalism necessarily entails the dispossession of the peasants of their means of subsistence (i.e. their land or access to common land or both), otherwise they just won’t work for you, or will work only half-heartedly and when they want, like they did for feudal lords. Consequently alongside primitive accumulation there was a propaganda war unleashed by the landowners and manufacturers that linked enclosures, the agricultural efficiency of large farms and the idea of progress. Central to their arguments were the concepts of free labour (in fact wage labour) and the idea that the peasant was a literally a dumb ass obstinately refusing to embrace the liberating and modernising force of capitalism.
So the two sides of the modernist coin become clear, a pro-capitalist position expounding the freedoms of wage labour and the market and a classical Marxist position supporting the inevitable development of capitalism and proletarianisation. Both positions essentially follow the same historical trajectory and both regard the peasantry as backward, a spent force and essentially an obstacle to be overcome in the march of progress.
So as far as most Whig historians were concerned the primary protagonists in the events of 1830-31 were decidedly backward and of little importance. Hobsbawm and Rudé make an observation about the paucity of historical information in their introduction ‘It is a salutary exercise for the modern historian to read - in most cases vainly – through the opulent volumes of that monument to the gentlemen’s view of the countryside, the older volumes of the Victoria County History, in search of any information about the rising of 1830...’ They go on to note that ‘The Liberal politicians of the 1840s, always anxious to comment on the abuses of squire and parson in the interests of Free Trade and in order to palliate the horrors of their own towns, often display an insouciance about the facts of the labourer’s life which reflects both a fundamental lack of interest and a virtually total lack of knowledge’. So this Whig ideological position about the peasant and progress allied with of course a rose tinted defence of the free market explains the lack of information and interest in Swing in the establishment histories.
But what about the more socially conscious leftist histories of the period? Two parallel movements, the rise of Trade Unionism and the struggle for enfranchisement of the working classes dominate socialist thought in the 19th century. According to the historians of these movements the ‘peasant’ features in neither struggle, is a dying class and is thus written out. However, the Swing risings provide an interesting contradiction, as the main actors, the farm labourers, are not actually peasants but proletarians, that is wage labourers with no land or significant means of subsistence. Hobsbawm and Rudé state that ‘He (the English peasant labourer) became not merely a full proletarian but an underemployed, pauperised one, and indeed by the time of the 1830 rising he retained little of his former status except the right to parish relief’. Also, Hobsbawm and Rudé note that 14% of those who were tried and whose occupations were listed were craftsmen of one sort or other. So at least technically the central characters in the Swing events have got over the feudalism hurdle, they are certainly not peasants, they are proletarians and therefore they should apparently count according to the classical Marxist definition of the potential revolutionary subject.
This brings us nicely on to a more subtle prejudice against the agricultural wage labourer that provides clues as to the discounting of the history of the Swing risings from a left-wing perspective. The somewhat simplistic explanation of the classical Marxist stagist theory of history that I covered previously hides another layer of hierarchy within the proletarian class itself. Marx envisaged the creation of a mass proletariat as integrally connected to the industrial revolution, that is the concentration of workers in large factories in urban settings. So, it is not just proletarianisation itself that creates the revolutionary subject but also the particular geographic circumstance of that process that is important for classical Marxists. Firstly, the concentration of proletarians creates the conditions for mass organisational forms such as the industrial Trade Union. Secondly, Marx considered the modern city, unlike the countryside, to be a politically and culturally liberating environment. Finally, the importance of industry within the overall economy places the industrial proletarian at a point of strategic importance in any revolutionary situation. Thus, for several reasons, the industrial working class was considered to be the politically conscious vanguard, if not the sole actor in any revolution. Consequently proletarians involved in agricultural production in rural settings do not score highly on the classical Marxist register of revolutionary importance.
It is therefore not surprising that modernist left-wing historians had ignored the backwaters of proletarian rural revolt throughout most of the 19th century and the first major work to mention Swing was the Hammonds’ ‘The Village Labourer’ of 1911 which underestimated its importance and incorrectly called it the ‘last labourers’ rising’. The next major phase of historical research work comes fifty years later, which is indicative of a significant lack of interest by the left, culminating with Rudé’s ‘The Crowd in History’ and his collaborative effort with Hobsbawm ‘Captain Swing’. The authors came from a British Communist Party background, which at best had a classical Marxist point of view, so although their critique of Whig history with its clear disregard of the Swing risings is in my opinion fairly accurate, they were already working within a theoretical framework which not only considered the ‘peasant’ backward but more importantly proletarian rural revolt to be of lesser historical importance than that of the industrial proletariat. This classical Marxist theoretical background allied with a good dose of Leninism would create even more obstacles for Hobsbawm and Rudé’s analysis of the Swing rising.
It is worth considering another aspect of the Swing risings that has caused embarrassment for Trade Union histories in general and had by 1850 appeared to have been pretty much put to death by ‘progress’. These are the so-called pre-industrial tactics of the labour dispute where workers used ‘collective bargaining by riot’, arson and machine breaking to achieve improvements in wages and conditions. All of these Luddite style tactics were common in the rural disturbances of the early 19th century and of course were the defining features of the Swing risings. Luddism in fact provides an excellent example of the two-sided coin of modernity that I examined earlier. Unsurprisingly, from the position of (hegemonic) Whig history, Luddite tactics are clearly anti-progress and necessarily backward, which is probably why the common usage of the word ‘Luddite’ signifies this definition. However more interesting is the ostensibly anti-establishment Trade Union or classical Marxist view which although often sympathetic to the ideas of workers exercising power at the point of production have a problem with Luddite tactics as they are read as an attempt to turn back the tide of progress, Canute stylee. If you believe in the inevitability of the collapse of capitalism via the stagiest theory of history then Luddism is at best doomed to failure and at worst a fetter on the very forces that are going to deliver to us the Promised Land. This tension between the supposedly progressive objective economic forces and the subjective agency of the proletarian presents a serious contradiction.
In addition to this, there is a somewhat tautological view of history going on here. Britain in the mid to late 19th century was regarded by both nationalists and classical Marxists as having the most advanced capitalist economy in the world. If you follow the argument of the stagist theory of history through, that means that not only is British capitalism the most advanced at that point in time but the British proletariat is also the most highly developed and by definition the tactics employed by the proletarians in the class struggle are the most sophisticated. So by definition, looking back from the late 19th century where organised Trade Unionism is dominant, to the period of Swing and Luddism, it appears as if such tactics are backward. The assumption being that the tactics of the so-called modern labour disputes in Britain are more advanced. However, what if, actually the British working class had been divided by trade, fully disciplined into capitalist labour and had either been cowed or conned into using certain tactics acceptable to their joint bosses the Unions and the management. How would we look back then? To a golden age of unmediated autonomist action by an undefeated emerging working class, perhaps?
So was the Luddism of the Swing rioter a conscious defence of the backward ways of rural labour or was something else going on? To begin with, the fact that Luddite tactics were present in the emerging cities as well as rural settings is in itself interesting and suggests that the supposed backward nature of such methods is not necessarily related to the rural. I am sure that if such tactics had been confined to the rural, they would have been soundly dismissed by both sides of the modernist coin for that very reason. So it appears that such tactics were common in many sections of the emerging working class of the period of Swing, both rural and urban, and significantly had had a long and honourable history.
A second point which historians such as E.P.Thompson understood in their critique of classical Marxist criticisms of Luddite tactics was that wrecking machines, arson and riot were not necessarily paroxysms of violence based on revenge or savagery but organised, conscious actions used to extract concessions from the propertied classes whether farmer, gentry or factory owner. For example, you may break a machine for a couple of different reasons, perhaps to cease its productive use or to cause financial loss for its owner. In the first instance it could be a conscious action to protect you from unemployment and pauperisation or it could be because the machine destroys the quality of your labouring life, that is it causes your labour to become more alienated. In the second case, you might be threatening a machine owner with financial penalties unless he increases your wages or improves working conditions. The key to this is the agency of the proletarian. Most if not all proletarians realise that their working time is not going to decrease (or their wage increase) with the introduction of machines unless they own them. This is not rocket science! No capitalist has knowingly introduced a machine with the intention of reducing the working day of a proletarian whilst paying him the same wage. So breaking machines is not necessarily a protest against progress or even the machine itself but actually an attempt to alter or oppose the economic (and ultimately I would argue political) power relations within which the machine is introduced.
This becomes clear in the Swing rising when labourers often recognised that small farmers were being forced by market conditions to introduce the threshing machine in order to compete with large farms or where tenant farmers were merely overseers of the landowner’s machines. In these cases the labourers often did not need or even attempt to coerce them but instead chased up the value chain to the landowning gentry or the parson who was extracting, profit, rent or tithe. These cases go some way to explaining why there was tacit and in some cases active support by some farmers for the destructive actions of the Swing mobs. The point I am trying to make is that the Swing proletarians were at least partly, if not fully aware of the economic power relations within which the machine was introduced. After all, they were close to the action both in their work and in their communities. So machine breaking cannot easily be dismissed as a mere truculent reaction to ‘progress’ or a superstitious fear of modernisation. Instead it was a widespread, measured and in the case of the Swing uprising, arguably successful tactic to deal with a particular problem for agricultural proletarians. That is, the effect upon their class of the introduction of the threshing machine within capitalist social relations.
1830 was an exciting year if you were a republican in Western Europe. In July in France a revolution broke out which overthrew the Bourbon king Charles X. After the creation of four thousand barricades on the streets of Paris and three days of street fighting the revolutionaries triumphed, formed a provisional government and instituted a constitutional monarchy. In August after a performance at the Brussels opera, a riot erupted, quickly followed by uprisings elsewhere in the country, which led to the secession and eventual independence of Belgium from the Netherlands. Both of these events were widely reported in the British press and energised radical and republican activists. Money was collected in Kent villages for the families of the French revolutionaries, notorious radicals such as Cobbett began inflammatory speaking tours, petitions for reform were circulated and Political Unions were formed in London, Birmingham and elsewhere. The Whig’s in parliamentary opposition began to grasp the idea that their route to power could be helped by reform of the Commons and consequently the language of their election candidates grew more and more pro-reform. As this pressure for change grew on Wellington’s Tory government during the summer of 1830, the Swing risings began.
In their introduction to the first edition of ‘Captain Swing’ Hobsbawm and Rudé note that ‘There were plenty of reasons for rebellion, but it is doubtful whether it would have occurred on such a vast scale when it did, without the double stimulus of the French and Belgian revolutions abroad and the revival of intensive political agitation in England’. Having opened up an intriguing aspect of the revolt, that is the politicisation of the participants, they go on to both question whether there was any new consciousness amongst the labourers and limit this to the standard fare of British labour histories, that is the presence of non-conformist sects such as the Methodists. Later in the book, they seem to come to the conclusion that the revolt was ‘essentially a labourers movement with essentially economic ends’ and that it had no overall plan, was spontaneous and fairly random. There does seem to be a contradiction here and it relates to certain classical Marxist ideas about political consciousness. The first problem that I have touched on already is that of the capability of a rural proletarian to become politically conscious, considering their temporal proximity to the ‘backwardness’ of the peasant, the dispersed nature of rural work and the supposed ‘idiocy’ of the countryside. Allied with these structural and geographic obstacles, comes the spectre of Leninism within Hobsbawm and Rudé’s analysis.
Lenin’s contribution to the debate about political consciousness concerns spontaneity, organisation and the role of the political party. His early writings emphasise the structurally derived limitations of political consciousness within both the peasantry and the proletariat and place the political party led by professionals as central to any successful revolution. According to Lenin, not only were self-organised, spontaneous activities within the working class politically limited but also without the professional revolutionaries and the party to lead them they were doomed to failure. Thus, the thread of structural limitations to consciousness proposed by classical Marxism allied with the supposed organisational pragmatism of Lenin has led many Marxists to not only deny or denigrate political consciousness in the working class and the peasantry but also to question the actual or potential agency of these classes.
The analysis (and lack of analysis) of the Swing risings is a good example of this tendency. As I have described previously, in 1830 the economic and political conditions for revolt and possibly revolution were already in place. According to Rudé there was ‘a sustained intensity of excitement unknown since 1641’ sweeping the country somewhat akin to the ‘Great Fear’ of the French Revolution of 1789. When the risings kick off there are numerous examples of politicisation, from the tricolours and black flags flying over Kent villages, to the distribution of seditious placards and hand bills across the counties, to marches of labourers led by radicals.
There are clear links and in many cases concerted action between the artisans, rural labourers and sometimes even factory workers. All of this suggests that some kind of political discussion and organisation was occurring either prior to or during the disturbances. How was this possible?
Rural labourers and artisans were far from the illiterate, isolated, semi-peasants that they have been portrayed as. In fact many labourers and artisans could read and could thus transmit written ideas to others. The ‘public reading’ to those who could not typically in an alehouse was part of contemporary village culture. Agricultural labourers were by necessity often seasonally mobile and developed networks of regional and local contacts in the process of their travels. Village artisans were even more cosmopolitan than this, having to travel to find work after their apprenticeships were over and in the process being exposed to the culture and politics of the town and city. The literacy and political radicalism of shoemakers for example is well known and Hobsbawm and Rudé note that the ‘average riotous parish had from double to four times as many shoemakers as the average tranquil one!’. Finally, the opening of the new ‘beer shops’ in October 1830 was suggested by the gentry as the cause of the Swing risings as they provided a place for the lower orders to congregate out of the control of their betters, read radical newspapers and plot subversion. Whether beershops in particular were something new and dangerous is debatable but certainly there is a perception that drinking establishments in general were places where artisans and labourers would meet, read and discuss politics. What should be noted is that during the disturbances themselves, the roving bands of machine breakers and rioters moved from ‘village to village, from pub to pub’ spreading the Swing contagion. As I have argued here, was asserted by E.P.Thompson and has been more recently stated by Griffin, at the time of Swing, ‘In every village, no matter how small or remote, there was the potential for the uptake and diffusion of radical political doctrines’. This suggests that the penetration of subversive ideas into the consciousness of agricultural labourers, whether by the conduit of the radical artisan or by other means was greater than had been previously acknowledged.
Hobsbawm and Rudé toy with the evidence of dissemination of radical ideas and the possibility of political consciousness in the Swing risings and then fail to follow it through. They appear to be tantalised by the possibilities but the rigid Marxist-Leninist framework just can’t give. For example in their introduction to ‘Captain Swing’, they dismiss any development of political ideology amongst the rural proletarians as a result of the risings and denigrate them to accepting ‘ancient symbols of ancient ideals of stable hierarchy’. This translates to rural labourers can’t do modern politics. They go on to accept that the ‘English village of the early nineteenth century was plainly not a dark backwater totally insulated from knowledge and contact with the more dynamic sectors of society’ noting the radicalism of the village artisans, the impact of the European revolutions and the Reform agitation. However, again they pull back and end up denigrating the potential for the development of political consciousness within the rural labourers. This translates to rural labourers are unable to develop organic consciousness unless led by more advanced sections of the class bringing ideas from outside. Finally, with the Marxist-Leninist hammer they nail the Swing uprising as a whole with the description that it was the greatest of many ‘improvised, archaic, spontaneous movements of resistance to the full triumph rural capitalism’ and finish with the patronising statement that it ‘was as near to a national movement as so spontaneous and unorganised an upsurge could be’. In conclusion, you could say that the Swing risings were for the Marxist-Leninist’s, wrong time, wrong place, wrong people.
In the South West TUC conference in 2009, Bristol Radical History Group ran a workshop called ‘Why history matters…and why radical history matters more’. I asked the 25 Trade Union delegates in the audience two questions, ‘Has any one heard of Captain Swing?’ and ‘Has anyone heard of Tolpuddle?’ About a third of the audience put their hands up in response to the first question and unsurprisingly everyone to the second. This essay has been an attempt to explain the curious results of this crude straw poll.
As far as reformist urban labour histories go the Tolpuddle incident ticks all the boxes and provides a classic narrative of victim orientated struggle. Some impoverished workers joined a perfectly respectable Methodist led organisation, which was dedicated to modern forms of industrial struggle including the non-violent improvement of wages and conditions. As a result the local landowners in collaboration with an anti-union government used a law based on mutiny and implying treason to prosecute a group of innocent men, transport them and in so doing martyr them. A massive peaceful campaign by the urban working class eventually leads to their pardon and return to England to live happily ever after.
In an essay that touches on the themes of this piece, historian Roger Wells points out that the Tolpuddle incident ‘As an ideological issue…was high-jacked by non-agrarian trade unionists and non-rural radicals, and used as a cause célèbre to advance labour organisations, and as an exemplar of Whig treachery to politicise the masses’. He goes on to note that labour historians, ignoring Swing and other rural struggles of the period, instead concentrating on the Poor Law reform as central to the beginning of Chartism, which is ‘traditionally perceived as the preserve of the urban and industrial masses’. Interestingly Hobsbawm and Rudé also acknowledge that Tolpuddle ‘is known only because of its urban repercussions. It has never been studied in relation to contemporary rural movements’. So the Tolpuddle narrative survives to this day, created as a powerful propaganda tool for the urban industrial working class, separated from its true origins in rural class struggles and effectively the ‘Year Zero’ for the Trade Union movement and its history.
Enough of the flea, what about the elephant that is Swing? As I hope I have shown, the Swing rising represented an antithesis of the Tolpuddle narrative in that it was massive, complicated and filled with a mix of ‘pre-industrial’ forms of sometimes violent collective direct action. Its acceleration and unpredictability was its strength, the fear of incendiarism and the portentous Swing letters sending shudders down the spines of the landowning gentry. The tricolours flying over villages in the autumn of 1830 and the seditious handbills of the radicals distributed amongst the Swing rioters frightened the ruling classes on a national level. No wonder it was buried by the Whigs, and later by the reformist labour historians for 130 years, to be rediscovered by the British Marxist school of historians under the pressure of the New Left ideological shift in the 1960s. Also I hope I have shown that Hobsbawm and Rudé’s analysis of Swing although ground-breaking and absolutely necessary, contains within it the ideological clues to why it took so long for the ‘revolutionary’ left to acknowledge it. The fetters of the classical Marxist stagist theory of history upon class consciousness, allied with Marx’s disdain for the rural and its proletariat plus the rigid Leninist doctrines concerning the validity of self-organisation and spontaneity put Swing and other similar waves of class struggle in the ‘dustbin of history’ for too long.
Recent re-analyses of the Swing risings, without these ideological constraints, have both highlighted a huge rise in the quantity and distribution of the events, as well as placed them as a big wave within a sea of similar incidents. These studies far from denigrating Swing have merely suggested that overt rural class struggle was deeper and more widespread than had been thought. The related question of finding temporal boundaries to the Swing risings, which tantalised Hobsbawm and Rudé, has led researchers connecting Swing to later episodes of rural resistance, for example to the Poor Law of 1834. Other studies have suggested that the Swing participants developed latent political and class consciousness through the praxis of the disturbances. For example one study employed sophisticated quantitative methods such as event-history diffusion models in order to analyse temporal and spatial patterns within the revolt. The researchers concluded that their analysis ‘shows events were certainly not spontaneous as the authorities of the time and Hobsbawm and Rudé insisted’. In fact they argue that ‘Swing events were not distributed randomly across England in 1830. Nor were they merely impulsive uprisings best left attributed to local economic and structural characteristics. Rather, the presence of a significantly quantifiable pattern…supports a case-level argument for a radical consciousness among labourers’. This tantalising conclusion leads us towards a more dynamic understanding of class (and political) consciousness, where implicit recognition of shared class interests can become explicit and contagious in extraordinary moments like that of the Swing risings.
Whatever you may think of these conclusions, one thing is for sure, the Swing risings of 1830-31 should not be ignored. Trade Unionists should recognise that they represent part of an unbroken history of rural class struggle, which encompasses Tolpuddle as well. The recent admirable efforts by Trade Union branches to recognise the suffering of Swing rioters and machine breakers, viciously punished for their attempt to improve the conditions of their families lives under a brutal agrarian capitalism, should be encouraged and extended.
Epilogue: What did the Swing risings do for us?
The Swing risings were clearly part of a wave of economic and political unrest that bore some connection to the European revolutions and the domestic struggle for parliamentary reform in 1830. However, a key question to be addressed is; did the Swing risings themselves have any effect on the British political system?
On November 2nd 1830, Wellington the prime minister made a categorical declaration that parliamentary reform was out of the question. This energised the London radicals and led to a call for a massive demonstration against the government on the 9th November, the object of which was to disrupt the visit of Wellington and King William IV to the Guildhall to inaugurate the new Lord Mayor. At the moment of Wellington’s statement the Swing risings were mainly confined to Kent, but in the following two weeks of November they escalated massively both in quantity and spread, crossing East and West Sussex into Hampshire with portentous Swing letters appearing in other associated counties. This increased momentum was noted by the authorities but ‘the widespread discontent with Wellington’s administration and particularly its position on parliamentary reform meant there was a reluctance on the part of the rural middle class to join any force that might be ordered to act against the rioters’. Some attempts to enrol special constables and yeomanry in Kent to deal with the disturbances had met with failure and there was a significant fear in the government that the use of troops to put down the disturbances might provoke revolution. The vacillation of Wellington’s Tories in dealing with the disturbances at this early stage not only allowed the risings to escalate exponentially but also projected to their enemies in all classes a sign of weakness.
It has been argued that a key moment in both the history of parliamentary reform and the Swing risings was ‘the news on 8 November of the cancellation of the royal visit to the Guildhall’. The authorities feared that, because of the demonstration called by the pro-reform radicals, ‘neither the monarch’s nor the duke’s (Wellington’s) safety could be guaranteed’. According to the historical geographer, Charlesworth ‘It was from this moment in the evolution of the revolt that the massive mobilisation of the labourers commenced. The conjunction of the events in London and those along the London-Hastings road on the 9th November appear to have transformed the rioting into what Colonel Brotherton later described as an insurrectionary movement’. In the week that followed this event, the writing was on the wall for Wellington’s anti-reform government. On the 15th November 1830, with the southern counties surrounding London apparently in a state of rural chaos, radicals agitating for reform and the government paralysed, the Tories lost a parliamentary vote of confidence, leading to Grey’s pro-reform Whig government.
In June 1832 the ‘Great Reform Act’ was finally passed into law, removing seats from ‘rotten boroughs’, increasing seats in the large industrial cities and enfranchising approximately 20% of adult males. After its passing William Cobbett, probably the most influential radical activist in Britain at the time, stated that ‘the Reform Bill owed more to the COUNTRY LABOURERS than to all the rest of the nation put together’. He went on to assert ‘that a combination of Wellington’s rejection of constitutional reform and the insurrection (Swing) guaranteed the appointment of a successor committed to its passage’. The historian Roger Wells questions this statement as the riots of 1831 notably in Bristol and other cities and other political events were also of importance in achieving the reform. However, whether by design or by chance (or a fusion of both) the Swing risings had a vital part to play in bringing about an important step on the road of enfranchisement and democratic reform.
Oh, by the way, it’s also the reason we have allotments, but that’s another story.