Review of Melvin Bragg’s documentary on John Ball

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John Ball, as Melvin Bragg points out in his two-part documentary Radical Lives[1], was consciously written out of history for 300 years after the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Unfortunately the real message and meaning of the movement which John Ball gave voice to is also kept hidden in the present, and also in Melvin Bragg’s own programme.

Although Radical Lives is a well made and informative documentary, which does much to restore John Ball’s historical importance, it is also a piece of bourgeois liberal propaganda. Bragg from the outset states that he rejects the term ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ because although peasants took part so too did many other strata of society such as “artisans, administrators, one or two Knights of the realm”. This was certainly true, but he goes on to claim that the revolt was in fact a movement of the amorphous and comfortingly liberal/democratic but in actuality non-existent group the “commons of England”. This is an angle he is extremely keen to push, because he is in effect arguing that the Peasants’ Revolt was not an expression of the exploited class and their instinctive drive towards a communistic world view, but rather an early precursor to what marxists describe as a bourgeois revolution.

This idea may or may not have merit and it would require a much more in depth study to fully get to grips with what exactly the Peasants’ Revolt represents historically; I would suggest that it was more of an expression of the exploited peasants than of the emerging bourgeoisie. This is mainly because of the strength of its communistic tendencies and also the fact that it simply seems too early for a bourgeois revolution to really be a serious prospect - but all this is really a side issue for now, what is important to understand is the way in which Melvin Bragg’s views obscure the reality of the peasants’ revolt and it’s true legacy.

There is a conscious or unconscious policy throughout the show of ‘whatever you do don’t mention communism’; this is shown particularly clearly when he quotes Ball himself. The well-known quote

My good friends, things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. How ill they have used us!… They have wines, spices and fine bread, when we have only rye and the refuse of fine straw; and if we drink, it must be water. They have handsome seats and manors, when we must brave the wind and rain in our labours in the field; but it is from our labour they have the wherewith to support their pomp.… Let us go to the king, who is young, and remonstrate with him on our servitude, telling him we must have it otherwise, or that we shall find a remedy for it ourselves” (Typical sermon, described in The Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and other places adjoining by the contemporary historian Jean Froissart)

becomes “matters goeth not well to pass in England nor shall do until everything be common and the Lords be no greater masters than we be.” This rendering is nicely vague and democratic-sounding and can be understood as merely being a condemnation of the oppressiveness of the Feudal state and its undemocratic notions of the ‘divine right’ to rule. However the full quote and a half way thorough understanding of John Ball and the primitive Christianity which he turned to for his beliefs would make the condemnation of class society and private property in general much more clear; perhaps this is why it was avoided?

We are told by Bragg that John Ball’s vision of Christianity was a “kind of democracy in which men and women lived equally without being oppressed either by the Church or by the state.” He then quotes more of the quote above without seeing the contradiction between that and his ‘democratic’ ideology; namely the fact that the quote talks almost entirely about differences in wealth between the ‘Nobles’ and the poor and the fact that it is from our labour they have the wherewith to support their pomp. The implication being that the state in ‘democracy’ no longer oppresses anyone. John Ball was not a mere ‘democrat’. Rather, Ball and a few other Christians in history took seriously Jesus’ real teachings, representing the communist tradition which stretches back as long as human history.

The legacy of the 1381 Peasants Revolt

It can be said that I am nit-picking at an otherwise good documentary to point out what we communists would guess would be the case before watching any BBC programme - which is that it’s probably not going to have a clear marxist analysis. However it is still important to point these things out because it is ultimately a question of which class inspiring events such as the Peasants’ Revolt belong to - the bourgeoisie or the proletariat, the exploiters or the exploited. The Peasants’ Revolt, although ultimately a failure, as all our movements have so far been, remains highly inspirational and needs to be appreciated as part of our struggle and our history.

One of the most inspiring things about the Peasants’ Revolt, which the documentary brings out well, is its highly moral character. It is referenced a few times that there were very few instances of looting and that the violence that was carried out was almost universally done in a conscious and deliberate way against individuals known to have taken a serious role in the oppression and exploitation of the poor, rather than being allowed to descend into pogrom or riot mentality. The moral position against looting was taken in order to show that the rebels were not thieves but were interested only in gaining freedom from serfdom and oppression. This expresses both great strengths of the movement but also a few of its weaknesses. For example the peasants may have taken land from landowners they were opposed to but their attitude to wealth itself was largely one of dismissive anger. This is shown clearly in the order issued to those raiding the houses of noblemen in order to burn the documents and records which kept them in servitude: “None, on pain to lose his head, should presume to convert to his own use anything that was or might be found, but that they should break such plate and vessels of gold and silver, as were in that house in great plenty, into small pieces, and throw the same into the Thames or into the privies” (cited in The English Rising of 138, H Fagan and R H Hilton, Lawrence and Wishart, 1950, p120. This is a little known history of the revolt, but probably the best so far)

Another extremely inspiring aspect of the revolt is the way in which the peasants managed to co-ordinate their movement across large swathes of the country, especially in Kent and Essex, in a time before mass communication was easily achievable. The tendency towards ‘localism’ which this produced was always an issue for peasant movements and is an important reason why the peasantry are not seen by marxists as a revolutionary class as such. The fact that they could to some extent overcome this difficulty is an indication of just how inventive and powerful the exploited can be when they come together in a common cause.

In many of these aspects of the movement the role played by John Ball and Watt Tyler should not be underestimated. The movement was shaped massively by the teachings and worldview of John Ball in particular and his rhyming couplets such as the famous “When Adam delved and Eve span/ Who then was the Gentleman?” became extremely popular. Similarly his advice and moral demands such as his prohibition against looting were almost astonishingly (to us brought up in decomposing capitalism at least) strongly held to by the vast majority of those involved.

As a movement it clearly was not free of weaknesses and it was ultimately doomed to remain a glimpse of a dream which is still to be realised. This was largely because of the historical context, not yet truly allowing for the practical dismantling of class society, but this expressed itself ideologically also in a number of ways: for example firstly its vision of communism was still very much a ‘Christian communism’, a communism of poverty, and therefore there was little in the way of practical ideas about how to create and maintain the new society they envisioned. And the trust in the King and the failure to really question the idea of kingship in general proved a fatal mistake when the King repaid their trust with deception and savage repression. This trust in the King is a clear warning to all revolutionary movements: beware of and be on guard against any illusions fostered by the dominant class because any of these can become fatal in the struggle against their systems of tyranny. There are still ‘Kings’ or idols that we as a class still harbour illusions in today: democracy, the rule of law, the nation, or any of the countless lies perpetuated daily by the present day ‘noblemen’. Hopefully, when the proletariat does again rise up, it will not fall for any of these fatal lies.  

Jaycee, 29/8/14

(This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)

[1] First shown BBC2, 1 August 2014 as ‘Now is the Time – John Ball’; part two was ‘The Rights of Man – Tom Paine’, shown a week later.