The English Radical Tradition, John Ball and the Peasants’ Revolt (Part 3)

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For Part 2

The Future of John Ball

There are plenty of reasons why stories from the English radical tradition like the Peasants’ Revolt should be remembered. One reason is simple: they keep alive histories that would otherwise have been forgotten in favour of the histories from above, of monarchs and great leaders. However, right though it is to remember history from below, we should also be suspicious. Liberal historians increasingly like such histories and TV producers and popular publishers also know there is some popularity in them.  

Why should we be suspicious? Should not the popularity of history from below be seized upon as a means of producing popular alternative histories of England? Yes! Instead, we should be suspicious when things become a little too popular among liberal academics and in the mainstream media. Further suspicion is called for because there is a tendency for popular history from below to focus a little too much on the details of how we used to live and (say) the oddities of peasant hats, peasant weapons, peasant stews, etc. 

Perhaps I’m being a bit unfair. But what some of the mid-twentieth-century pioneers of history from below stressed was not simply to find lost cultures—though that was obviously important—but to explain historical change, particularly the importance of class conflict and the emergence of capitalism, as well as the importance of organised resistance. This class-based analysis is what we should not lose in understanding history from below. 

And this is why the English radical tradition and figures like John Ball interest me. They represent the explosions of class-conflict that recur in history, English or otherwise. Certainly, pre-modern expressions of discontent were presented in language we might find alien—including the religious language of John Ball. But we should not dismiss their importance just because of different worldviews to ours, just as we should not become too disillusioned with a history of failures. John Ball protested against peasant servitude and failed—but he represented a moment in, over the long term, the inevitable decline of serfdom. 

And while John Ball and the Peasants’ revolt was a failure, bigger victories would come through class struggles which drew on examples from the English radical tradition. The emergence of a labour movement and eventual victories for free healthcare showed it was possible to win seemingly impossible demands. Yes, the labour movement has been in retreat over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, but Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and the rest didn’t represent the end of history. The emergence of the Corbyn movement, for all its contradictions, has shown the potential for class-based change when all seemed lost. And this potential was helped by keeping the radical tradition alive in those low points.

Well over a century ago, the English socialist and designer William Morris knew that history was a series of defeats and victories. He used John Ball to show this in his fictional work, A Dream of John Ball, where Morris effectively goes back in time to discuss the future with John Ball. Ball is shown that there will be martyrdoms, but they are not in vain and are part of keeping the best of Ball’s message alive and inspiring future struggles which may not take on the same forms—beheading archbishops, after all, may no longer be the best way to achieve a better world.

This is why we should take defeat seriously but also know that history is an ongoing struggle—there will be more defeats, but we need to keep alive the message that another world is possible. It is also why when those moments come we should be ready to act and stand firm. This is the sort of reasoning why we need to be involved in the class struggles in and around Corbyn’s Labour, even if we don’t get everything we want all the time. Corbyn supported trade unions and unpopular causes when few politicians would—and deserves some loyalty in return—but what he also represents is the opportunity to challenge contemporary capitalism like never before, and the possibility to move far beyond. 

But what the relentless media hostility and opposition within the Labour Party to Corbyn has shown is that even a relatively modest challenge to capitalism cannot happen without dedication and discipline. It is obvious that capitalism will not end without the attacks on its opposition getting far stronger the closer it gets to power. But big historic victories have been won before and for the first time in my life, the chance of socialism coming to power in this country is no longer the pipedream it was—it can be done.

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