This article is from the blog buildingarevolutionarymovement.
This post lists 9 Revolutionary moments and periods in Britain since 1381. This is a broad overview so I will look at the details and patterns of these moments and periods in future posts.
Following on from the previous post about learning from history, there has been a long tradition of the working class struggling to transform society. Several things are now different such as 40 years of neoliberalism, the atomisation of workforces with the large scale de-industrialisation of Britain, a heavily weakened labour movement, and a general lack of class consciousness for most of the working class. Class struggle in the 21st century is clearly going to be different as so much has changed. But there is much to learn from this history that I will go into in future posts. There are clear patterns through history in how different groups of actors operate during class struggles: the ruling class and state, the leadership of the trade unions, and the working class. Understanding these patterns is essential when thinking about class struggle going forwards.
In The Road Not Taken: How Britain Narrowly Missed a Revolution 1381-1926, Frank McLynn identifies seven occasions when Britain came close to revolution. These are the Peasants Revolt 1381, Jack Cade’s Rebellion 1450, the Pilgrimage of Grace 1536, the English Civil Wars 1642-51, the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6, the Chartist Movement of 1838-48, and the General Strike of 1926. McLynn includes the Great Unrest of 1910-1914 and near revolution in 1919, as leading up to the General Strike of 1926.
Rob Sewell has written an excellent radical history of the British labour movement called In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism. Sewell writes from a Lenin, Trotsky, and Russian Revolution tradition. He identifies 4 Revolutionary moments and periods of the labour movement: early radical labour movement in the late 1820s and 1830s; The Chartist Movement; The Great Unrest 1910-14, near revolution between 1919-26; and class struggle from the late 1960s to mid-1980s.
I have also added the Long 1968 – from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s.
The Peasants Revolt 1381
This was triggered by tax collection in Essex in May 1381. This resulted in rioting and protests that spread across the country. The rebels’ demands were tax reduction, the ending of serfdom and the removal of the King’s senior officials and law courts. The revolt was repressed by the end of June, including a battle in Norfolk.
Jack Cade’s Rebellion 1450
This revolt took place between April and July 1450. The grievances included corruption, abuse of power by the king’s advisers and military loses in France during the Hundred Years’ War. It was a southeastern uprising led by Jack Cade. The rebels looted London and were forced out of the city. The rebels were issues pardons by the King and told to return home.
The Pilgrimage of Grace 1536-7
This uprising began in Yorkshire and spread to other parts of northern England, in protest against Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the policies of the King’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. The King said he would consider their demands so they returned home. Another uprising took place in January 1537 and Henry VIII considered this a breach of the amnesty so rounded up all the original leaders and had then hung.
The English Civil Wars 1642-51
Here is a great summary from Wikipedia:
“The English Civil War (1642–1651) was a series of civil wars and political machinations between Parliamentarians (“Roundheads”) and Royalists (“Cavaliers”) principally over the manner of England’s governance. The first (1642–1646) and second (1648–1649) wars pitted the supporters of King Charles I against the supporters of the Long Parliament, while the third (1649–1651) saw fighting between supporters of King Charles II and supporters of the Rump Parliament. The war ended with Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651.
The outcome of the war was threefold: the trial and execution of Charles I (1649); the exile of his son, Charles II (1651); and the replacement of English monarchy with, at first, the Commonwealth of England (1649–1653) and then the Protectorate under the personal rule of Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658) and briefly his son Richard (1658–1659). In England, the monopoly of the Church of England on Christian worship was ended, while in Ireland the victors consolidated the established Protestant Ascendancy. Constitutionally, the wars established the precedent that an English monarch cannot govern without Parliament’s consent, although the idea of Parliamentary sovereignty was only legally established as part of the Glorious Revolution in 1688.”
The Jacobite Rising of 1745-6
This was an attempt by Charles Stuart to regain the British throne for his father James Stuart, from George II. Most of the British army were fighting in Europe. This was the last in a series of uprisings between 1689 and 1746. Charles landed in Scotland in August 1745, gaining Scottish support and won the Battle of Prestonpans. They reached as far south as Manchester before turned back in December. Battles were won on the retreat to Scotland and Charles escaped to Europe.
Early radical labour movement late 1820’s and 1830’s
Trade unions were legalised in 1824 resulting in the huge growth in the number of trade unions and their memberships. There was open class struggle between the workers against the government and employers. Strikes took place all over the country. In 1830-1 rural agricultural uprising took place led by the fictional ‘Captain Swing’.
The Merthry Rising took place in 1831 in Wales, where coal and steelworkers protested about wages and unemployment. This spread to nearby towns and villages. In June 1831 the red flag was raised in Merthyr Tydfil.
The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was set up in 1834 to abolish capitalist rule and the revolutionary transformation of society. This had explosive growth with 500,000 members. Strikes across the country increased with demands over wages, recognition, and the eight-hour day. Repression increased with an example made of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who were sent to Australia for attempting to set up an agriculture labours union. Repression resulted in many trade unions ceasing to function.
The Chartist Movement of 1837-48
Chartism was a national working-class protest movement for political reform with strong support in the North, Midlands and South Wales. Support was greatest in 1839, 42, 48. It presented petitions with millions of signatures to parliament, combined with mass meetings with the aim of putting pressure on politicians.
The People’s Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:
- A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
- The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
- No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
- Payment of Members, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation.
- Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
- Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.
Chartism did not directly achieve any reforms but put huge pressure on the ruling class and generated significant working class solidarity and class consciousness. In 1867 urban working men were given the vote, but it was not until 1918 that full manhood suffrage was achieved.
The Great Unrest 1910-1914 to the General Strike 1926
The Great Unrest from 1910-14 saw a massive national increase in union membership and strikes in response to employers’ attempts to reduce wages and intensify the exploitation of workers. The main sectors included miners, transport workers, and dockers. The government responded with warships, troops and police using violence to intimidate workers. Syndicalism was an important part of the struggle in this period.
This period also saw the Suffragette movement use militant tactics in their struggles for the vote for women.
The start of World War One resulted in the official suspension of party politics and labour movement struggle, although strikes continued through the war. Following the end of the war in 1918, 1919 saw a large increase in strikes, police uprisings, several armed forces’ mutinies and mass resistance among the working class.
There were mass strikes again in 1921 in response to wage decreases and increasing unemployment. The Minority Movement was launched in 1924 with 200,000 trade union members in the major sectors. Its aim was to overthrow capitalism, the emancipation of workers from oppression and exploitation and to set up a socialist commonwealth. Miners strikes continued in 1925 and the government backed down because it was not ready for a confrontation with the labour movement.
The General Strike of 1926 lasted for nine days in May. It was called by the Trade Union Congress to force the government to prevent wage reduction and worsening conditions for 1.2 million coal miners. 1.7 million workers went on strike: miners, transport and dockers, printers, ironworkers and steelworkers. The strike was defeated.
During the Culture Power Politics session on 1968, Jeremy Gilbert describes the ‘short 68’ and ‘long 68’. The short 68 is the events that happen in the year 1968. Gilbert describes the long 68 as a global revolt against colonialism and its legacies, against various forms of oppression that are typical of advanced industrial capitalism. He describes how the long 68 starts in the 1950s and ends with the global defeat of the left in the mid-1980s.
The social movements from this period include the women’s liberation movement, the gay liberation movement, green movement, disabled people’s movement, anti-racism and anti-fascism, and the peace/anti-war and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The period from 1970 to 1984 saw an open class struggle between the state and the labour movement. There were a large number of strikes during this period. The 1972 miners’ strike over pay spread to sectors so the Tory government had to back down and the miners got increased pay and benefits. In 1973 oil prices quadrupled due to war in the Middle East and the miners introduced an overtime ban. The Heath government introduced the three day week in early 1974 and then called a general election in February 1974 but failed to get a majority of MPs so the Labour Party formed a minority government. The Grunwick dispute was a strike between 1976-78 for trade union recognition at Grunwick Film Processing Laboratories in London. It was not successful. The Winter of Discontent 1978-9 saw widespread strikes by public sector trade unions demanding larger pay rises, following the ongoing pay caps of the Labour Party. The government gave in to the demands.
The election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 saw a new aggressive approach to break the strength of the labour movement. There was a national miners strike in 1984 against the planned closure of 20 pits, resulting in the loss of 20,000 jobs. The Battle of Orgreave was a significant defeat for the miners following intense police violence. The miners’ strike ended in March 1985 with defeat. The Thatcher government closed over 100 pits and 100,000 miners lost their jobs. The 1980s also saw a number of radical socialist councils challenging Thatcher – the Great London Council, Liverpool City Council, Sheffield City Council and others – in what is known as the rate-capping rebellion.