The workers of the world have been given many names over the centuries.
Nowadays we do actually talk of workers or employees, but in the past it has been working class as opposed to middle class even when the middle class worked; even further back we talk of peasants or serfs which, considering the conditions they faced along with their lack of rights, was tantamount to slavery.
Nowadays if we want to protest we tend to get together, make banners and write out placards and march to confront whoever they wanted to protest against (although if the current government gets its way this peaceful means of protest could be lost to us).
Even earlier in the 20th century we had the right to withdraw our labour.
This was not always the way and going back to the early part of the 19th century often the only means of protest involved violence, not necessarily to those opposing the workers as much as their property (bearing in mind that in the 19th century destruction of property could even be considered a more heinous offence than violence against the person).
Much of this form of protest was considered to be against industrialisation in both rural and urban areas as well as the imposition of tolls and similar taxes. As rioting could lead to hanging or at the very least transportation, the rioters, of necessity, would disguise themselves and would have a mythological leader such as Rebecca giving us the Rebecca Riots; Captain Swing and the agricultural Swing Riots and Captain or Genera Ludd leader of the Luddites.
These, however, did not even scrape in at the bottom of a list of peasant revolts and we have to go back to England in the 14th and 15th centuries to see serious revolts in England.
The peasants’ revolt of 1381, sometimes called Wat Tyler’s Revolt, came in the wake of the Black Death which had killed off over a third of the population of Europe and creating a serious shortage of people to work the land. The last straw for these peasants was the imposition of a poll tax (which didn’t work out too well 600 years later for Thatcher.
Groups of peasants from all over the south east of England banded together and headed for London. Some natural leaders emerged as the groups joined together, eventually reaching 60,000, but one man stood out as an overall leader, Walter (or Wat) Tyler.
Despite Tyler being seen as leader it was another group leader who gave us one of the outstanding quotes that is often still used by socialists today, highlighting the fact that there had not always been masters and peasants.
John Ball was classed as a rebel priest, often referred to as a hedge priest, and, although he had only led one small group to the final gathering outside London, but his speeches urging the crowds on had been avidly received.
In calling out for a change in the class system he came out with the slogan: “When Adam delved and Eve span who was then the gentleman”
Whether or not you believe in the Creation as opposed to the Big Bang this simple slogan highlights the fact that in the beginning there was no difference between man and woman when it came to status.
Although the young King Richard II had made many promises to the rebels, thus persuading them to go back to their homes, none of these were kept and once dispersed it was difficult for the peasants to reorganise and return as greater armed control had been put into force.
There was little unrest amongst the peasants over the next 70 years and in fact for a good part of this the shortage of workers because of the Black Death had put them in a better bargaining position when it came to being paid a better rate by the landowners who did not fancy doing the dirty work.
The next peasant rising was in 1450 and was again in the south eastern region with tens of thousands of peasants advancing on London in protest to King Henry VI about maladministration and corruption in local areas by representatives of the government.
They were led by a man called Jack Cade and might have got a lot further with their protest if Cade had shown greater control. As it was many of the peasants saw a chance for looting in London, not just from shops but also from private houses. This roused the ire of the citizens of London who drove the rebels out of the city.
The rebels eventually dispersed after being given promises of improvements in local administration and by Jack Cade and other leaders being granted individual pardons for their actions by King Henry.
Weeks after the rebellion, when all the peasants had returned to their own areas, the pardons were withdrawn and many of the leading lights of the revolt were rounded up and executed.
The third and final peasants uprising (the riots of the 19th century were not classed as rebellions or uprisings) was in 1549 and was called Ketts rebellion even though Robert Kett was one of the first victims of the uprising in Norfolk.
The cause of complaint was the Act of Enclosure which meant landowners could enclose common land for their own use.
Rebels in Wymondham were going to tear down fences belonging to Sir Robert Flowerdew, but he bribed them to go elsewhere and they moved on to destroy the fences of landowner Edward Kett.
Rather than oppose them or bribe them he offered to lead the rebels and ended up with a gathering of 16,000 rebels. They headed for Norwich, after destroying Flowerdew’s fences anyway, and actually took control of the city. A royal army sent against them was defeated but soon after another royal army was sent in and defeated the rebels.
Kett was executed at Norwich castle and other rebel leaders were hanged at an oak tree outside the city which had been used as a central gathering point for rebels.
Socialism seems to have failed these rebels.
Maybe we need to go further back to find out whether socialism was actually part of our Creation story or our actual evolution.
NEXT TIME: were Adam and Eve our first socialists or does that claim belong to Lucy and her family?