The English Radical Tradition, John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt (Part 2)

Part 1 available here – https://0161festival.com/the-english-radical-tradition-john-ball-and-the-peasants-revolt/

The story of John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt does not have pride of place in the public imagination. There is much greater public awareness of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria,and Churchill. So why is the history of people challenging elite power not popular and yet we all know something about those representatives of elite power? The answer is obvious: the history many of us were taught has often served elite interests in education and culture. When Michael Gove was Education Secretary, he tried to push a glorious history from above, perhaps too much in that he was called out for it. Interestingly at around the same time, and just before he became leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was challenging this view and pushing for the English radical tradition from below to be central to education.

Then Corbyn could be safely ignored. But not now. And with the rise of Corbyn is the opportunity to promote radical English history. In fact, some of those close to Corbyn have tried to tell an alternative story of English history with reference to the Peasants’ Revolt and beyond, in order tocounter the threat from UKIP in Brexit towns. Obviously, the story of John Ball isn’t going to bring disillusioned people in towns across the midlands and the north in huge numbers to Corbyn’s Labour, socialism or the like. After decades of neglecting such communities, politicians are not going to regain trust easily. One short-term aim of promoting English radical history is to do whatever can be done to keep people from drifting away, particularly to the right and far right. The story of the Peasants’ Revolt—with its gore, outrageous ambition, and hostility to elite power—is as entertaining as it is progressive, and we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of that.

But one worrying concern (regularly played out online) is that this stress on an English radical tradition, and its use for countering the right and far right, will be turned on antifascist campaigners deemed undesirable by liberals, including those liberals claiming to be on the left. Liberals have used (and no doubt will continue to use) the opportunity to discredit class-related concerns by associating them with the far right. Any opposition to the far right is, obviously, to be welcomed. However, what regularly comes with liberals claiming to hate the far right is that they lump economic or class-based grievances made by the far right with those of the left in order to bolster centrism or liberalism and discredit class-based challenges from the left. We’ve seen this happening recently in the treatment of Eddie Dempsey who was wrongly accused of pandering to far-right interests when he pointed out the failures of the liberal left to represent working-class interests has boosted support for the far right. This attempt to discredit Dempsey was carried out despite his well-known antifascist credentials and despite his well-respected work as a union organiser, including among migrant workers. Make no mistake, the attempt to discredit Dempsey was also an attempt to discredit serious class-based analysis. 

The idea of using an English radical tradition for class-basedanalysis will likewise receive (and has likewise received) this treatment, particularly when it involves places removed from journalists, politicians and academics. This is why we should stress that the way we use the English radical tradition and its use of the flag of St George is not the imperial history of the United Kingdom or the Union Jack and it is not the nativist history of the far right—in fact it is in unambiguous opposition to both. What we promote is an ongoing history where people of whatever ethnic backgrounds are making this history. We know that goes without saying, but we should be prepared to stand up to the liberal misrepresentation.

Of course, the Peasants’ Revolt is of another era and comes to us with values often alien to ours, no matter how ahead of its time its main ideas were. In the final part we will look at other ways of remembering this and the English radical tradition. 

NB: 0161festival.com is a platform for sharing a variety of articles about sports, arts, politics, history and Manchester.

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